Aaa by wuyunyi



Sometime around the beginning of what we call “the third millen-
nium” (the year 2000 in the Western system of dating years), my
long-time friend, the San Francisco-born, Vancouver poet George
Stanley half-jokingly invented “aboutism.” Among other things,
aboutism proposes that a poem — or any other literary work for that
matter — should be, after all, about something. Aboutism stands in
contrast to the contemporary poetries of linguistic abstractionism or
verse containing no more than local anecdotal significance, and
whose context is restricted to the expressive self rather than con-
nected to the world. And underlying that dictum about poetry is the
suggestion that one’s life, too, should be about something.
  In his book At Andy’s, George Stanley’s poems are described (in a
back cover blurb) as being “about movies, ballparks, hockey, dogs,
sex, aging” and various trips Stanley had made “to Calgary and Ver-
acruz, Ireland and Scotland, his return to Terrace, B.C., where he
lived for fifteen years . . .”
  And so they are. But I immediately noticed something peculiar
about the whole idea of aboutism. When you read one of Stanley’s
poems, one, say, ostensibly about a few half-stoned men watching
hockey on TV, or the comings-and-goings of Terrace, a small town in
northwestern British Columbia, Canada, it turns out that the poem is
also about capitalism, about television, about the phenomenological
events in the poet’s mind, about advertising (“the car drives into your
head & is wedged there, & the beer pours through your veins —”),
about the nature of language, about one’s decentered location in the
cosmos, about the problems of writing, about ruthless mortality and
about “the huge surrounding fucked reality.” (I especially like that
last, big, fuzzy concept, “the huge surrounding fucked reality.”) The
poems are not only about something, they’re also almost always
about everything.
  Aboutism is George Stanley’s reminder — to himself and others —
that art is, finally, about the world. A related but slightly different
idea appears in contemporary philosophy in one of Richard Rorty’s
essays, when he says, “Certainly we should not think of our [philo-
sophical] claims answering to how anyone or everyone takes things
                     8     |     the short version

to be, but neither should we take them to answer to how things really
are. The alternative is to take them as about things, but not as
answering to anything, either objects or opinions . . . Aboutness, like
truth, is indefinable, and none the worse for that.”
  In relation to art, aboutism is a game, but within it is a fairly serious
parody of contemporary literary movements. In fact, were it not
saved by its playful aspects, aboutism would be a slightly reactionary
doctrine — though not actively retrograde, like the so-called New
Formalism in poetry (or, the “New Formaldahyde,” as Stanley calls
it). But aboutism is reactive in the sense that it rejects a lot of the out-
comes, if not the intent, of the late 20th century literary movement
known as Language Poetry. That movement proposed a kind of writ-
ing that would be self-consciously critical of the banal characteristics
of much of contemporary poetry, including its tendency to regard
itself as making priestly pronouncements, all of which had only
served to remove poetry even further from public consciousness and
reduce it to a minor art understood solely by a select readership. In
the “pomo-speak” style that Language Poetry critical writing
favoured, the movement argued for “a self-critical poetry, minus the
short-circuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege” that “might dissolve the
antinomies of marginality.”
  Aboutism doesn’t object to that idea. But what was wrong with a
lot of the poems by the Language Poets is that you couldn’t make
head or tail of what they were saying; the results were often irreferen-
tial, in the sense that they didn’t seem to be about anything, or any-
thing most people could understand, despite the effort to break “the
automatism of the poetic ‘I’.” Language Poetry wanted to get rid of
the authorial voice, to produce a kind of “view from nowhere,” on
the grounds that the “I” inevitably distorted the world. Whether the
storyteller can be eliminated from the story and its telling is arguable
(I think it’s a dubious proposition) but, in any case, Language Poetry
seemed just as marginal as any other marginal writing. Does any of
this matter? Yes, of course, it does. How we tell the story, what we
write about, our understanding of the function of writing are all
issues for every writer, to which the idea of aboutism offers one possi-
ble response.
  Like other ideas, aboutism is not just an abstraction existing in a
vacuum, but is part of a discourse whose context is both autobio-
graphical and about the world. In the mornings, at the college just
outside of Vancouver where I work, before we go off to teach our
8:30 classes to sleepy-headed students, Ryan Knighton, Reg Johan-
son, and I imagine aboutism. Ryan and Reg are the next generation of
writers and teachers at the college, while George Stanley and I, in our
sixties, are just about to be put out to pasture. Reg, though not an
                          Aboutism     |    9
Aboutist, is willing to humour Ryan and me. He or Ryan, conjuring
up the yet-to-be-written “Aboutist Manifesto,” cites the movement’s
first axiom: “Theory guards us from error. We are for error.” I.e., art
wants to risk making mistakes.
  Ryan insists that the name of the doctrine be pronounced in the
French manner — “a-boo-tisme.” Its practitioners can then be
known as “Aboutistas,” he says. The quirky shift from French to
Spanish is a comical way of celebrating the current Mexican Zap-
atista political movement, or a comment on Starbucks coffee shops
referring to its workers as barristas. Ten years from now, I think, this
semantic fooling around, which enlivened a few of our mornings (and
thus gave us courage to talk to the students), will no doubt be
inscrutible to readers. I imagine a project to recover — from the
secret crannies and undervalued protocols of literary production — a
history of lost literary jokes, and the pleasures they invoke.
  Just before we leave for class, I suddenly cry out from my flimsy-
walled office cubicle, imitating the strangled voices of dinosaurs I
heard in “prehistoric” movie melodramas when I was a teenager. The
movies had names like 100 Million B.C., and though they were far
less “realistic” than contemporary digitalized dinosaur movies, they
were much more scary. My high-pitched wail — a sort of
“Wrrraghurrooaa” — echoes down the fibreboard corridor of the
Humanities Division to Ryan’s office at the far end. Though my
unpremeditated outburst is just a goofy, anti-professorial mockery of
us academics studiously preparing our lesson plans before class,
there’s something curiously authentic from my childhood under its
surface. Maybe those movies gave me my first sense that, as George
Stanley puts it in another poem, “Things cry out against each other
— / the world, the image / I have of it, whirled back / in time, into
nothing —.”
  “The sounds of professors in their cages,” I say, but think: We cry
out. I can hear Reg, in a similar cubbyhole across the hall, chuckling
at my send-up of classroom “preparation” (an activity solemnly
invoked in union contracts between the college and the teachers). Per-
haps I’m hinting that these days professors have been reduced to the
evolutionary obsolescence of dinosaurs, but the immediate point of
making fun of preparation is that there’s no way to be prepared for
anything. Then we head off to our classes, perfectly unprepared
Aboutistas, energetically ready to talk about the world.

PS  : Predictably, as soon as a few people started taking aboutism
half-seriously, Stanley announced that aboutism was over. He pro-
posed an academic conference: “Aboutism: What Was It All About?”

I’m one of those readers devoted to the paraphernalia of books. I like
prefaces, forewords, introductions, contents pages, epilogues, after-
words, appendices, bibliographies, indexes, even the “running heads”
of authors’ names and chapter titles, and the fine print data on the
verso of the title page. Of all the extra-textual materials, I’m particu-
larly fond of acknowledgements and often find myself reading long
lists of the names of those people who helped the author, as if I’ll run
into someone I know (or even myself). Acknowledgements usually
appear at the beginning or end of the book, but in an ABC book, of
course, they enter the text itself.
   Most of the writings in this book were first read, criticized and
edited by Brian Fawcett, and early versions of many of the pieces here
were initially posted on the Dooney’s Café website,,
the digital space over which Fawcett has presided. Other pieces also
appeared elsewhere, and I’m particularly grateful to Stephen Osborne
and Geist magazine in Vancouver, and Frank Berberich and Lettre
International in Berlin for their attention and encouragement. Several
people read and were kind enough to comment on parts of this book,
or assisted me in other ways. Among them: Lanny Beckman, Robin
Blaser, Carellin Brooks, John Dixon, Daniel Gawthrop, Mark John-
son, Ryan Knighton, Don Larventz, Thomas Marquard, Rolf Mau-
rer, Audrey McClellan, Ilonka Opitz, Bob Perrey, Renee Rodin, Tom
Sandborn, Nikolai Schmarbeck, Bruce Serafin, and George Stanley.
   Finally, I like the traditional last line of acknowledgements, in
which those who aided the author are absolved of blame for his mis-
takes, and the writer declares, “Whatever errors of fact or interpreta-
tion that remain are the responsibility of the author.”


I n Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1432) — which I saw in St.
Bavo’s Church in Ghent, Belgium in spring 2002 — in the upper left-
hand panel of the triptych, there’s a portrait of a naked Adam, driven
from Paradise, taking the first irreversible step out of the Garden of
Eden. What I notice are the sole and carefully rendered toes of
Adam’s right foot, lifted in a step that, through an optical trick of van
Eyck’s art, steps out of the narrow frame of the picture. I think of the
old saw: The hardest step on any journey is the first. To which George
Stanley tartly responded: “The hardest step on every journey / is the
last, and every step is the last”. The aphorism can bear one more
addendum: And every step, first or last, is the expulsion.


W    hile I was an adolescent, everything that is crucial to my identity
happened. Because those adolescent experiences were so vivid, I
could never accept the notions of the determining impact of either the
unconscious or the affective power of early childhood traumas with
any enthusiasm. So, I’m not a Freudian even though it was the reign-
ing psychological ideology during the 1950s when I was growing up.
The general ideas of Freud are plausible in the abstract if not in the
specifics, but I remain deeply resistant to the concept that we are pri-
marily shaped by our infantile experiences.
  Adolescence as the determining period of the creation of the self
seems more common-sensically true. As an adolescent, my relation-
ships with the boys with whom I played sandlot baseball and went to
Marshall, and then Austin High School in Chicago — the Murphy
brothers, Eddie Lacy, Bob Greenspan, Abe Dorevich, Nick Kinnis,
Elliot Goldman, Mel Weisberg — set the parameters of my notions of
friendship, loyalty, physical beauty and desire. Adolescence is when I
first contemplated the nature of the starry universe; became engrossed
in politics (the McCarthy-Army U.S. Senate hearings on communism
were on TV and I watched them after school); and acquired a taste for
“bohemian” company — in drama class with Sandra S., “Bunny,”
Chuck Harris. Adolescence is also when I began to write.
  One day, age 13 or so, around the onset of adolescence, I was work-
ing — inkily and ineptly — in the school mimeograph room (Sumner
Elementary School) with Bob Perna, a local “tough” of Mediter-
ranean lineage. He told me about an uncle of his who was an artist. I
looked up blankly from the clicking drum of the mimeo and regis-
tered his disappointment that I failed to recognize the name of his rel-
ative, Salvador Dalí, or the remarkableness of being so related. After
all, I was supposed to be a “brain.” I was awed by Perna’s sophistica-
tion, his assumption that one should surely know who Dalí was, by
the intimation that a larger world existed and could be the concern of
people like me. Much later, coincidentally, I became particularly fond
of Dalí’s paintings — just the other day I was again looking at his
Narcissus — notwithstanding the contempt in which he’s held by the
official art world, which regards him as something of a fraud.

Here’s the sort of thing that not infrequently happens to me: I’m sit-
ting in Berlin one rainy summer afternoon reading, in a desultory
way, the electronic edition of the New York Times. I happen upon an
article about an Arabic-language poet who, the headline says, “dares
to differ.” I click onto it thinking no more than, OK, some guy who
dissents from the madness of Islamic politics. Good.
  But in the article, apart from its topical account of an Arab literary
dissenter, I learn that 72-year-old Adonis, a Syrian-born writer named
Ali Ahmad Said until he took the name of a Greek god as his nom-de-
plume at 19, is “widely considered the Arab world’s greatest living
poet.” Among other things, he lives in exile in Paris but is spending
the year in Berlin (so we’re in the same city, as I’m reading the article);
he’s a modernist, as important to 20th century Arab-language poetry
as T.S. Eliot is to poetry in English; he rejects Islamic ideology, and is
also critical of equivalent Western nonsense; etc.
  A few lines of a prose poem, “Remembering The First Century,” are
quoted: “We blunder through prophecy as if through sand. ‘Brother,
show us a sign that shall prevail.’ History crumbles downhill like a
babble of ants that choke on their own dust, on the filth of snails, on
shell after shell . . .”
  All of the article’s claims about the greatness of Adonis strike me as
completely believable. And I’m thunderstruck. Maybe I shouldn’t be,
but I am. It’s as if the newspaper article is announcing the discovery
of a whole new continent. I perhaps had heard Adonis’s unusual pen-
name, but paid no attention. I think I confused him with some
African or Caribbean “dub” poet. How is it possible that I’ve lived a
relatively long life that includes knowing quite a bit about poetry and
yet I knew, until that moment, nothing about Adonis? There is no end
to ignorance, or at least no end to my ignorance. I’ll have to reconfig-
ure my picture of the world, my mappa mundi, not only now, this
very minute, but probably right up to my very last breath.

                           Irene Aebi

M   emory, quick as a gift: In the copy of Marguerite Duras’s Practi-
calities that Irene Aebi gave me (because she knew of my fondness for
Duras), I find her inscription in French, “For my friend Stan (who
always remains the young man that I knew), affectionately, Irene.”
   We were both young. It was in Naples, Italy, around 1960. I was in
the U.S. Navy, stationed near Naples, and she was a Swiss girl, work-
ing as an assistant to a biologist doing research in immunology,
studying chicken eggs under a microscope. The three of us met
because he was looking for help in writing up his findings. Irene and I
became friends. She was tomboyish, with short-cropped blond hair
and strong cheekbones — a look that was made fashionable by the
actress Jean Seberg when she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath-
less. As a Swiss, Irene was quadrophonic, speaking a melange of Eng-
lish, French, Italian and German. She was the first European I knew.
   A couple of years later, Irene visited me in San Francisco. Then there
was a gap of many years. When she reappeared — it was in Vancou-
ver in the 1980s — her life was transformed. In her new incarnation,
she was a singer and occasional violinist who performed with her
partner, the famous jazz soprano saxophonist, Steve Lacy. They lived
together in Paris, but Irene often found periodic refuge at the Sylvia
Hotel in Vancouver. That’s where she gave me the Duras book. We
were no longer young, but our conversations, about books, art, ideas,
retain the adolescent excitement of a lifetime.

                   Of African descent

M   y father owned or worked in a series of more or less failing gro-
cery stores in black neighbourhoods on the South Side of Chicago for
some twenty-five years, roughly between 1940 and the mid-1960s.
His stores foundered because of the appearance of large, new, chain
supermarkets, a feature of post-World War II capitalist development
that ultimately doomed the independent corner groceries. It was the
era when the South Side, as historian Robert Stepto writes, “bur-
geoned as thousands of African Americans, almost exclusively from
the south, migrated to the city during the Great Migration of the
World War II years.”
  Among the first black people to whom I was formally introduced —
at about age five, one Sunday morning while accompanying my
father to the store — was a plainclothes Chicago policeman named
Two-Gun Pete. When we shook hands, his large paw engulfed my
tiny one, and I noticed how the pink flesh of his palm contrasted
against the dark brown skin on the back of his hand. Was I shown
and allowed to touch the mother-of-pearl handle of one of his fabled
guns, or was I merely told about them? My father impressed upon me
Two-Gun Pete’s prowess and fearlessness. He’d just as soon shoot a
man as look at him, people said of Pete in tones of awe.
  A couple of years ago, on television, I watched scenes of black
“unrest” in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the wake of a police shooting of an
unarmed African-American teenager, the latest in a string of similar
killings over a number of years there. Like the other viewers, I was
left with a few violent, familiar visuals: the plate glass window of a
shop being smashed; a gaggle of young black men, several of them
shirtless, running across a flame-licked urban landscape; a grainy
video clip filmed at night, whose soundtrack carries an occasional
police gunshot; the talking head of the sombre white mayor of
Cincinnati declaring a curfew; a grieving mother. The succession of
pictures provide a sort of check-list of scenes meant to prove that this
“riot” is comparable to previous riots impressionistically stored in
viewers’ memory banks. Intentionally or not, the visuals successfully
hinder any understanding of what might be going on.
  “Race-relations” or, more properly, the impoverished, horizonless
                   16     |    the short version

condition of masses of black people in blighted city cores across the
United States, remains the great American internal political disgrace
of the second half of the twentieth century. But the bare declaration
of the atrocity — and it is an undoubted atrocity, long drawn-out as
well as punctuated by incidents such as those in Cincinnati — hardly
conveys the horror of hundreds of thousands of slowly lost black
lives in America.
  When I look back on the time during which I grew up, the ubiqui-
tous racism is now more apparent, even if it was only the muted ver-
sion absorbed in my family, which, on my mother’s side, included
several small shopkeepers whose customers were mostly black. Then,
African-Americans were known as Negroes, coloureds, or, among
lower-middle-class Jews, the Yiddish term schwartze, derived from
the German word for “black,” was used.
  (George Stanley recently observed how thoroughly and rapidly the
term “black” succeeded “negro” in the 1960s; a brown-skinned
woman of Caribbean descent with whom we were talking argued
that the later “African-American” is a questionable usage arising
from dubious aspects of contemporary “identity politics.”)
  Did my aunts utter the sentence, in reference to the impending
arrival of a coloured cleaning woman, “Is the schwartze coming over
today?” These relatives of mine, European-descended Jewish Cau-
casians, watched brutal scenes on TV of black civil rights protesters
being menaced by police and dogs in Alabama or Mississippi in the
mid-1950s. And they were probably appalled by the Southern prac-
tice of segregation — separate and unequal toilets, drinking foun-
tains, and schools for Negroes and Whites. Yet their own unthinking
references to blacks simply assumed them to be a separate and yes,
inferior, people. Significantly, the contemporary white race riots of
the early 1950s, against Negroes being apportioned a share of the
newly-built public housing projects right there in Chicago, received
far less attention than the televised barbarities in Georgia.
  Apart from acquiring a liberal attitude in support of the black civil
rights movement, as a teenager I was less absorbed by the politics of
race than I was by the ontological mystery of the differences. How
was it possible for human skin to be different colours? I’d encoun-
tered hundreds of black people — customers, workers, and people in
the neighbourhoods on the South Side of Chicago where my father’s
successive failing stores were located. They included the young black
men my father employed and trained in the skills of meat-cutting and
clerking (valuable trades to acquire, given black unemployment
rates), who in turn taught me to play basketball and instructed me in
the rudiments of boxing in the alley behind the store during our
breaks. I maintained a correspondence with one of them, Frank, a
                     Of African descent     |    17
young man four or five years older than me, after he’d joined the
army and was stationed in Alaska. With the ambition of a budding
author (age thirteen), I proposed that I could “write up” his adven-
tures in the wild.
  Although it became conventional in the left-wing identity politics of
the 1980s and 90s to intimate that sexual desire for the coloured
“other” was also a form of imperialist racism (based on a judgment
about white men sleeping with black women), it’s a proposition I’m
inclined to dispute as simplistic and partial. The mystery of skin
colour wasn’t fully impressed upon me until I became infatuated,
around age 14 or 15, with someone I’ll call Jesse Williams, a black
schoolmate in my high school gym class.
  I contrived to get the clothes locker next to Jesse’s, and whenever I
could, I lingered in the locker room. I sat next to where Jesse stood on
the wooden bench, looking up in mute adoration. In the crowded
change room, with the sound of showers hissing in the background,
and the noisy horsing around of teenage boys banging locker doors
and snapping towels, onlookers would hardly have noticed me,
although I had the sense that Jesse himself was not unaware of my
furtive glances at his groin as he stepped into his white jockstrap.
  I couldn’t have articulated my feelings then. I had barely thought
about homosexuality yet; at most, I had a dim notion of the Freudian
concept that boys passed through “a phase” of love for other boys.
Yet, I felt a distinct difference between my desire for Jesse, and for
others to whom I was attracted— pale blond Protestants, or the Irish
and Jewish kids of my acquaintance. Having grown up with all of the
latter, it seemed as if my attraction to them arose at least partially out
of a shared cultural background in which I had gradually learned
about the possibilities of beauty. Whereas, with Jesse the force of eros
was startling, unprecedented, as if I had invented this particular
recognition of desire all on my own (or as if it had invented me).
Though it’s hardly a cure for racism, desire and a healthy curiosity
about others (a.k.a. xenophilia) seem like first steps away from it that
are as plausible as any others. Equally, relationships between people
of different races that create children of mixed skin colour deliver a
small, more literal blow against racism (in the 1950s such relations
were banned in the U.S. by so-called “miscegenation” laws).
  A similar illumination on the intellectual side occurred when I
walked into an algebra class on the first day of the semester and dis-
covered that the teacher, Mr. Harris, was a black man. Clearly there
was a dissonance between the slightly demeaning notion of
schwartzes and the presence of an African-American man who would
instruct us in the mysteries of mathematics, rendered alphabetical
with mysterious x’s and y’s (e.g., 2x times 3y equals 4z; what is x?).
                   18     |   the short version

  The developing cognizances — erotic, intellectual — of actual black
people I knew are more informative than the abstract political rheto-
ric of racism deplored. Recently, I happened upon Wayne Miller’s
book of photographs, Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948, gradually
becoming pleasantly lost in the images of scenes I may have seen for
myself as a boy.
  There was no photograph of Two-Gun Pete in Miller’s book, but I
was intuitively certain I would find something. After looking at the
pictures, I turned to Miller’s introductory memoir of shooting those
photographs and immediately found the passage I was seeking. Of
the many hundreds of pictures he had taken a half-century before,
Miller says, he remembers those “of Silvester Washington — a
Chicago Juvenile Police Officer nicknamed ‘Two-Gun Pete’; like the
maverick General George Patton, he sported a pair of pearl-handled
revolvers.” There’s a photo of a contemplative black teenager in a
suit and tie who, according to the caption, is “at the Wabash Avenue
police station presided over by Silvester ‘Two Gun Pete’ Washing-
ton.” The boy appears to be listening to someone just outside the
photo’s frame, likely Two-Gun Pete himself, who also moves just out-
side the frame of my memory.
                          After Lorca

In the winter of 1958-59, Jack Spicer gave a poetry reading at San
Francisco’s Bread and Wine Mission, a proto-New Age storefront
drop-in centre at the top of Grant Avenue in North Beach run by
Father Pierre Delattre. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time, 18 years
old, stationed at nearby Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, my first
posting after boot camp.
  Had I already read about, or seen a picture — in Life magazine —
of “Hube the Cube”? This improbable poster-person for the beatnik
movement was a scruffy, thin man with a black beret whom I some-
times saw walking on Grant Avenue. What got him into Life maga-
zine was the word “oblivion” tattooed on his right bicep, his unique
way of declaring withdrawal from the “rat race” of conventional life
in 1950s America.
  When I went into the city, I searched out the “beatniks” and artists,
and occasionally stopped by the Bread and Wine Mission for the free
spaghetti dinner it offered once a week. That’s likely where I heard
about Spicer’s reading.
  I hadn’t yet been introduced to Spicer, though I’d read a couple of his
poems in the Evergreen Review a year or two earlier. But I was paying
more attention to the stars of the burgeoning literary movement that
would eventually become the “New American Poetry” — Allen Gins-
berg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder.
  In person, Spicer was an ungainly pear-shaped man in his early thir-
ties, his thinning hair swept back from his sun-freckled forehead,
garbed, the first time I saw him, in a rumpled sports jacket and ill-fit-
ting black pants. While he read, he scrunched up his eyes, balled his
chubby fists, and seemed to menacingly chew on the words of his
  I was soon to learn that Spicer, about a year or two before this read-
ing, had experienced one of those extraordinary artistic break-
throughs that often determine a poet’s career and shape the
remainder of his life. That breakthrough is the subject of this passage.
  Born in Los Angeles in 1925, and raised there, Spicer had come to
the University of California at Berkeley at the end of World War II
where he fell in with a group of young poets, the most prominent of
                    20     |    the short version

whom — Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and himself — formed a tri-
umvirate at the forefront of a local poetry movement that became
known as the “Berkeley Renaissance.”
  A decade later, while briefly and unhappily in New York and
Boston, Spicer found himself at an artistic impasse. True, he had writ-
ten several good poems in the past ten years, predominantly influ-
enced, I think, by the work of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, but as
he said in a poem commemorating the death of jazz musician Charlie
Parker, “Song for Bird and Myself” (1956), “I am dissatisfied with
my poetry, / I am dissatisfied with my sex life, / I am dissatisfied with
the angels I believe in.” In the opening chapter of an unfinished detec-
tive novel he subsequently attempted, Spicer offers a fictional self-
portrait of himself as a stymied, “academic” poet, returning to San
Francisco to seek new inspiration.
  Just before his return to San Francisco, Spicer read a new edition of
Federico Garcia Lorca’s Selected Poems (1955), co-edited by Don
Allen, a former Berkeley classmate working in the publishing busi-
ness in New York. Toward the end of 1956, Spicer began dabbling in
some translations of the work of the homosexual Spanish poet who
had been murdered by the Fascists in 1936, at age 38. Spicer was
attracted not only to Lorca’s homoeroticism, but also by the Spanish
poet’s association with surrealism. Lorca had been in love with Sal-
vador Dalí, and was a friend of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Spicer
was also drawn to Lorca’s Orphic theory of duende, and his interest
in the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. All of these were
themes that resonated with Spicer’s own poetic concerns. By Christ-
mas 1956, back in San Francisco, Spicer had completed his transla-
tion of Lorca’s angry “Ode to Walt Whitman,” at which point he
became stuck in this still undefined project.
  It wasn’t until summer 1957, after conducting a “Magic Work-
shop” for young poets and finishing a brief teaching stint at San Fran-
cisco State College, that his writer’s block broke. When Don Allen
arrived in San Francisco to spend the summer, Spicer had a new
“Lorca” poem to show him practically every day when they met at
Vesuvio’s or The Place, two local North Beach bars. But the poems
weren’t simply translations. As Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser in
Boston in June 1957, “Since school’s been out (for me forever) I’ve
been ignoring my unemployment and translating Lorca . . . I enclose
my eight latest ‘translations.’ Transformations might be a better
word. Several are originals and most of the rest change the poem
vitally. I can’t seem to make anybody understand this or what I’m
doing. They look blank or ask what the Spanish is for a word that
isn’t in Spanish or praise (like Duncan did) an original poem as typi-
cally Lorca. What I am trying to do is establish a tradition. When I’m
                         After Lorca     |    21
through (although I’m sure no one will ever publish them) I’d like
someone as good as I am to translate these translations into French
(or Pushtu) adding more. Do you understand? No. Nobody does.”
  A year or so later, in 1958, in the middle of Spicer’s next book,
Admonitions, and as part of the text, there is another letter to Blaser.
“You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual
poems . . . Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writ-
ing a book instead of a series of poems,” Spicer says.
  “That is why all my stuff from the past . . . looks foul to me. The
poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of
them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaning-
less as sex in a Turkish bath . . . Look at those other poems. Admire
them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb,” he laments.
  “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should
create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can . . .
Things fit together. We knew that — it is the principle of magic. Two
inconsequential things can combine together to become a conse-
quence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by
itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.” Spicer tells Blaser, “This
is the most important letter that you have ever received.”
  Allowing for a bit of vatic hyperbole in the claim that his earlier
poems amount to no more than “one night stands,” what’s interest-
ing is that Spicer’s critical vocabulary uses the colloquial language of
gay cruising to describe his dilemma, asserting that poetry, if not the
poets who write it, is looking for love rather than sex. More impor-
tant, in the midst of writing After Lorca, Spicer discovered the notion
of what he and Blaser would subsequently call the “serial” poem, a
form whose unit of composition is the “book” (using that word in a
way slightly different from its conventional reference), and to be dis-
tinguished from the modern “epic,” such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or
Charles Olson’s Maximus, as well as other “long” poems, or poems
in “parts.” In the serial poem, each poem stands on its own, and yet
integrally connects to the other poems that make up the “book.” Fur-
thermore, Spicer conjoins to the serial poem an Orphic theory that
the poem is transmitted, from an unknown outside source, by a
process of “dictation.” For the remainder of his brief life — he died in
1965 — Spicer would write only dictated “books.”
  The first result of this breakthrough was After Lorca (1957), a
thoroughly original work and a book unlike any other in American
poetry in its era. Beyond the form of the serial poem, and the mixture
of “transformations” and scrupulously accurate translations (the one
of Lorca’s “Ode to Whitman” is arguably superior to that of any pre-
ceding “professional” translation), Spicer gave the book an elegant
and witty coherence by interweaving the poems with a series of letters
                    22     |    the short version

to the dead Lorca that proclaimed Spicer’s poetics and provided a
sort of self-reflexive narrative of the writing of the poems. As well,
there’s an “introduction” to After Lorca written mock-posthumously
by Lorca himself.
   The assumption of the persona of Lorca is Spicer’s first great inven-
tion in After Lorca, creating the trope that not only are the poems
written in the manner of Lorca (hence, “after Lorca”), but that both
Spicer and (the imaginary) Lorca are writing after the death of the
Spanish poet. “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked
me to write an introduction to this volume,” Lorca begins, in a tone
of dry, mild affront that Spicer sustains throughout the apparently
reluctantly written preface. “My reaction to the manuscript he sent
me (and to the series of letters that are now a part of it) was and is
fundamentally unsympathetic. It seems to me the waste of a consider-
able talent on something which is not worth doing.” However, Lorca
adds, with grim wit, “I have been removed from all contact with
poetry for the last twenty years. The younger generation of poets may
view with pleasure Mr. Spicer’s execution of what seems to me a diffi-
cult and unrewarding task.”
   The imaginary world that Spicer conjures up in this first paragraph
is so smoothly and economically presented that its surreal meta-
physics are almost imperceptible — a world in which living poets can
communicate with dead ones by sending them letters through a celes-
tial post office, and in which dead poets have enough of an afterlife to
criticize the living one’s efforts.
   Lorca forcefully warns readers that the poems are not translations.
“In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure
in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely
change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written
it.” Moreover, there are hybrid poems, half-Lorca, half-Spicer, “giv-
ing rather the effect of an unwilling centaur (modesty forbids me to
speculate which end of the animal is mine),” as well as an equal num-
ber of Spicer’s own poems “executed in a somewhat fanciful imita-
tion of my early style.” Worse, there’s “no indication of which of the
poems belong to which category,” and — in a final twist of the poetic
knife — “I have further complicated the problem (with malice afore-
thought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written
after my death which he has also translated and included here.” As
Lorca puts it, with gallows-humour, “Even the most faithful student
of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia
Lorca as, indeed, he would be if he were to look into my present rest-
ing place.”
   The letters to Lorca are “another problem,” says the imaginary
recipient of them. “When Mr. Spicer began sending them to me a few
                        After Lorca     |     23
months ago, I recognized immediately the ‘programmatic letter’ —
the letter one poet writes to another not in any effort to communicate
with him, but rather as a young man whispers his secrets to a scare-
crow, knowing that his young lady is in the distance listening.” In this
case, the young lady “may be a Muse, but the scarecrow nevertheless
quite naturally resents the confidences.” As for the reader of this odd
amalgam, “who is not a party to this singular tryst,” Lorca concedes
that he “may be amused by what he overhears.”
  What follows are about thirty brief poems, each dedicated to a
poet, friend, or lover of Spicer’s acquaintance, two surrealist playlets
featuring the silent movie comedian Buster Keaton (about whom
Lorca had in fact written a playlet in his posthumously published
Poet in New York), the famous polemical “Ode to Walt Whitman” in
which Lorca — and Spicer — argue their uncompromising views on
homosexual love, and the interleafed “programmatic” letters.
  In the letters, Spicer propounds a poetics whose principal issues are
the relation of language to poetry; the connections or “correspon-
dences” of poems to each other despite their apparent disimilarities
or distance in time, geography and language (a theory created in the
19th century by Rimbaud and Baudelaire); and necessarily, a meta-
physics about art, life, love, and death — the latter realized through a
metaphorical embodiment of “the dead,” who, as Lorca says, “are
notoriously hard to satisfy.”
  The poems in After Lorca are unassuming lyrics that nonetheless
often carry the sting of the underlying poetics, but are far from the
spectacular figures and romantic language that first attracted me to
poetry (Allen Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters,” say, “dragging
themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry
fix” — some of whom I would meet in San Francisco). Spicer’s Lorca
poems are stark, melancholy, disciplined, and cerebral. A characteris-
tic one reads:

                             A Diamond
                                   A Translation for Robert Jones

 A diamond
 Is there
 At the heart of the moon or the branches or my nakedness
 And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
 Nothing in the whole mind.
 The poem is a seagull resting on a pier at the end of the ocean
                     24    |    the short version

 A   dog   howls at the moon
 A   dog   howls at the branches
 A   dog   howls at the nakedness
 A   dog   howling with pure mind.

 I ask for the poem to be as pure as a seagull’s belly.

 The universe falls apart and discloses a diamond
 Two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the
  waves are
 The dog is dead there with the moon, with the branches, with
  my nakedness
 And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
 Nothing in the whole mind.

   The complex metaphysics of “A Diamond” posit the merciless
interrelationship of person to the world and perhaps something
larger. The ordinary world of “branches,” “a dog,” “seagull,” “the
ocean,” rendered in words — “two words called seagull are peace-
fully floating out where the waves are” — and the binary universe /
“the whole mind,” are offered as alternatives, mediated only by “the
poem.” The howling of Spicer’s dog is far removed from the rhap-
sodic, Whitmanesque “Howl” that Ginsberg had written only a year
or two before. In Spicer’s vision, the universe “falls apart” to disclose
“a diamond” at the heart of things — “the moon or the branches or
my nakedness.” The declaration is that “there is nothing in the uni-
verse like diamond / Nothing in the whole mind,” and that the dia-
mond is the poem.
   The letters to Lorca make the poetics more explicit, despite a dialec-
tical elusiveness. Spicer begins with a tactical feint, disclaiming the
importance of the missives. “These letters are to be as temporary as
our poetry is to be permanent,” Spicer tells Lorca. “They will estab-
lish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries
demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use
up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems.” Several
times Spicer makes unfavourable comparisons of the prose of the let-
ters to poetry. “See how weak prose is,” he says. “These paragraphs
could be translated, transformed by a chain of fifty poets in fifty lan-
guages, and they would still be temporary, untrue, unable to yield the
substance of a single image. Prose invents — poetry discloses.”
   In the course of enunciating his stance, Spicer also provides, almost
offhandedly, an autobiographical portrait of his own spare life. “A
mad man is talking to himself in the room next to mine. He speaks in
prose. Presently I shall go to a bar and there one or two poets will
                        After Lorca     |   25
speak to me and I to them and we will try to destroy each other or
attract each other or even listen to each other and nothing will hap-
pen because we will be speaking in prose. I will go home, drunken
and dissatisfied, and sleep — and my dreams will be prose. Even the
subconscious is not patient enough for poetry.” Neither madness,
dreams nor everyday discourse can take us beyond prose; only poetry
can make something “happen.” Spicer adds, almost by way of
respite, “You are dead and the dead are very patient.”
  In a further letter, Spicer notes that although “a really perfect poem
has an infinitely small vocabulary,” there is a considerable difficulty
embedded in language and reality. “We want to transfer the immedi-
ate object, the immediate emotion to the poem — and yet the imme-
diate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived
and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and
substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The
words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the
body . . . Objects, words must be led across time not preserved
against it.”
  Finally, on language: “Words are what sticks to the real. We use
them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what
we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as
rope with nothing to be tied to.”
  The difficult notion of “the real” and the problem of the “immedi-
ate object” or emotion are taken up in a subsequent letter, one that
would attain some notice as Spicer’s formal statement of poetics
when it was published in editor Don Allen’s New American Poetry,
1945-60. Although many of Spicer’s contemporaries also made state-
ments about poetics, the still-remarkable feature of After Lorca’s
poetics, which are fully embedded in the work of art, is that no Amer-
ican poet had said precisely these things before, and no one had spo-
ken in this intimate, confiding tone of voice about how poetry
  Spicer declares, “I would like to make poems out of real objects.
The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste
— a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper.”
Immediately, and characteristically, Spicer invents a tantalizing
dialectic between the impossibility of poems made out of real lemons
and the reasonableness of a newspaper fragment pasted into a col-
laged artwork. “I would like the moon in my poems to be a real
moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has
nothing to do with the poem — a moon utterly independent of
images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the
real,” Spicer says.
  If there is a dialectic between words and the real in poetry, there is
                    26     |     the short version

something similar between mere images and “visibility” within a
poem. “How easy it is in erotic musings or in the truer imagination of
a dream to invent a beautiful boy. How difficult to take a boy in a
blue bathing suit that I have watched as casually as a tree and to
make him visible in a poem as a tree is visible, not as an image or a
picture but as something alive — caught forever in the structure of
words. Live moons, live lemons, live boys in bathing suits. The poem
is a collage of the real.”
  But, as Spicer knows as well as the rest of us, “things decay . . . Real
things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas
begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient
events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the
garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its
objects, in turn, visible — lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to news-
paper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalent into
  That is, “things do not connect; they correspond.” It is the possibil-
ity of correspondence that gives meaning to the otherwise mysterious
notion of “tradition” that Spicer mentions in both his letter to Blaser
and the letters to Lorca. A poet “translates” real objects, “bring[s]
them across language as easily as he can bring them across time.” The
corresponding objects are not at all identical — “that lemon may
become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or
this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imag-
ine that lemon; one needs to discover it.” Even the letters to Lorca
“correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have writ-
ten . . . and, in turn, some future poet will write something which cor-
responds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.”
  At the end, after other letters and poems, Spicer announces that
“this is the last letter.” The connection between the two poets has
faded away “with the summer. I turn in anger and dissatisfaction to
the things of my life and you return, a disembodied but contagious
spirit, to the printed page.” The communion with the ghost of Garcia
Lorca is over.
  How was it ever able to happen? Spicer wonders. “It was a game, I
shout to myself . . . There are no angels, ghosts, or even shadows. It
was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for poetry
that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires.”
Yet, it was real. “The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but
a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasion-
ally looked through my eyes and whispered to me . . .”
  In “Radar,” a postscript dedicated to Marianne Moore, Spicer once
more measures the uncertainty of the world in relation to the self, and
the irreparable loss which shadows any such encounter:
                       After Lorca    |    27
 No one exactly knows
 Exactly how clouds look in the sky
 Or the shape of the mountains below them
 Or the direction in which fish swim.
 No one exactly knows.
 The eye is jealous of whatever moves
 And the heart
 Is too far buried in the sand
 To tell.

  At Spicer’s reading that night in the winter of 1958-59, he read
from his recent books, Admonitions and A Book of Music, two serial
poems written in 1958. In about six months I would acquire an ele-
mentary understanding that permitted me to see why this poetry was
more interesting than its spectacular, hip cousins, but at the time,
what Spicer read went mostly over my head. Nonetheless, after the
reading, I hung around anyway and fell into conversation with the
poet. Somewhere in the course of talking — perhaps as a result of the
talk, or simply because I was young and attractive, though I wasn’t
any more aware of my beauty than I was of his alleged ugliness —
Spicer produced a rumpled brown paper bag, the kind you could get
at any grocery store. He emphasised that although the books inside
the bag normally sold for one dollar, on this occasion he was giving
me a gift. At which point, he extracted from the paper bag a copy of
After Lorca and handed it to me. Thus, I began my relationship with
my mentor.

I only have to re-open the pages of Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time:
An AIDS Memoir, as I did recently, and a lot of it comes back. From
the chilling first sentence — “I don’t know if I will live to finish this”
— the aura of dread that for years permeated every minute of the
time of that plague era returns in force, sending a shudder through
my body. The memory leaves me off-centre, with a survivor’s mixed
feelings of guilt and gratitude, and also, a sense of being curiously
obsolete for possessing personal recollections of what to others can
only be an increasingly distant matter of history. Some 20 years after
the inception of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), and
after or in the midst of subsequent, if lesser, epidemics (Ebola, West
Nile and the SARS viruses), how can I explain what it was like then?
Strange to have lived through — strictly by chance — a plague in my
own lifetime. Strange that its location in people’s minds, including my
own, is now displaced, both temporally and geographically. Strange
that in one sense AIDS is over, but hasn’t at all ended, neither here, in
North America and Europe, where it continues to afflict particular
ethnic and sub-cultural groups, such as intravenous drug users, nor
there. “There” is now Africa, where AIDS rages in catastrophic pro-
portions, with literally millions of people on the verge of death, sim-
ply, as far as I can tell, because “we,” the rich world, won’t give
“them,” the poor world, the drugs they need and can’t afford.
  How to give an idea of what it was like then? Through our records
of the plague, our dispatches from the front. There is, not surpris-
ingly, a lot of very good writing about AIDS, from novelist Edmund
White’s fictionalized memoir, The Farewell Symphony to activist-
scholar Douglas Crimp’s militant essays, Melancholia and Moralism.
The amount of good writing is not surprising in the sense that a size-
able number of talented, literate men, their minds “wonderfully con-
centrated,” as Samuel Johnson put it, by the prospect of death,
applied their intelligence to providing a description of the plague.
Even works that are justifiably criticized — journalist Randy Shilts’s
best-selling And the Band Played On and Larry Kramer’s shrilly-
pitched Reports from the Holocaust come to mind — offer moments
of legitimate illumination. But of all the books written in the midst of
                            AIDS        |   29
the plague, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time is the one that had the
greatest impact on me.

T  he circumstances of Monette’s grief-stricken tale are simple
enough. Set in the mid-1980s, Monette and his friend, Roger Hor-
witz, lovers for a decade, are practically poster-boys for the joys of
middle-aged gay domesticity. There’s “a stucco 1930s cottage high in
a box canyon above [Hollywood’s] Sunset Strip” in which they live,
“a view of the city lights through the coral tree out front and between
the olive and eucalyptus across the way,” while out back “is a garden
court shaded by Chinese elms and a blue-bottom pool that catches
the sun from eleven to three,” and a terrace for dinners with friends
down from San Francisco. There’s a used, bawky, black Jaguar
(upscale successor to a Mercedes), and holidays to Greece or the Cal-
ifornia foreshore at Big Sur. There are understanding parents with a
house in swanky Palm Springs, fashionable restaurants, and an
assortment of therapists and agents. They attend benefit dinners put
on by the gay community, and Roger, a lawyer, and Paul can afford to
sponsor a table. The occasional movie star, prominent producer, or
famous writer passes through the scene of their domestic life.
  But there’s a darker side to this middle-class homosexual idyll.
Monette, a once promising poet and novelist, the author of Taking
Care of Mrs. Carroll (1978) and The Gold Diggers (1979), finds him-
self, five or six years later, at age 40, in something of a literary slide,
stalled on a novel and reduced to writing sit-com movie scripts.
There’s a hint of recent past trouble in an otherwise monogamous
relationship. And there is the rumour of the plague.
  Monette recalls the “shadowy nonfacts,” “the most fragmented of
rumours” of the early 1980s. He remembers noting in his diary in
December 1981, “ambiguous reports of a ‘gay cancer,’” then adds,
“but I know I didn’t have the slightest picture of the thing. Cancer of
the what? I would have asked, if anyone had known anything.” A
couple of months later, in early 1982, driving to Palm Springs to visit
Roger’s parents, Paul reads aloud from an article in the gay magazine
The Advocate, an article titled “Is Sex Making Us Sick?” As Monette
notes, “There was the slightest edge of irony in the query, an urban
cool that seems almost bucolic now in its innocence. But the article
didn’t mince words,” providing the first in-depth reporting he’d seen
— it wasn’t yet mentioned in the Los Angeles Times — of a mysteri-
ous — was it fatal? — disease that targetted gay men.
  “I remember exactly what was going through my mind while I was
                    30     |     the short version

reading,” Monette writes a half-dozen years later. “I was simply
relieved . . . because the article appeared to be saying that there was a
grim progression toward this undefined catastrophe, a set of precon-
ditions — chronic hepatitis, repeated bouts of syphilis, exotic para-
sites. No wonder my first baseline response was to feel safe. It was
them — by which I meant the fast-lane Fire Island crowd, the Sutro
Baths, the world of High Eros. Not us.”
   It wasn’t “us,” not yet. Nor was it yet known that the disease didn’t
present a neat set of preconditions. Not until a year and a half later, in
autumn 1983, did Monette get a call from his best friend, Cesar, a
teacher in San Francisco, who reported a swollen gland in his groin
that he was going to get biopsied before the school semester began
again. “AIDS didn’t even cross my mind, though cancer did,” Mon-
ette recalls. “Half joking, Cesar wondered aloud if he dared disturb
our happy friendship with bad news. ‘If it’s bad,’ I said, ‘we’ll handle
it, okay?’” Paul and Roger were busy getting ready for their annual
trip to Big Sur. Paul put the thought away. After all, “even though he
went to the baths a couple of times a week, Cesar wasn’t into any-
thing weird — or that’s how I might have put it at that stage of my
own denial. No hepatitis, no history of VD, built tall and fierce — of
course he was safe.”
   But days after their return from Big Sur, Paul arrived home one
evening and “Roger met me gravely at the door. ‘There’s a message
from Cesar,’ he said. ‘It’s not good.’ Numbly I played back the
answering machine, where so much appalling misery would be left on
tape over the years to come, as if a record were crying out to be kept.
‘I have a little bit of bad news.’ Cesar’s voice sounded strained, almost
embarrassed.” Monette spends the evening working his way through
a tangle of telephone calls, bracing himself for cancer news, before he
reaches a mutual acquaintance named Tom. “The lymph nodes, of
course — a hypocondriac knows all there is to know about the sites
of malignancy. Already I was figuring what the treatments might be
. . . I had Cesar practically cured by the time I reached Tom . . . But as
usual with me in crisis, I was jabbering and wouldn’t let Tom get a
word in. Finally he broke through: ‘He’s got it.’ ‘Got what?’” Mon-
ette asks, but he knows at that instant that “it” is something other
than a curable cancer.
   The best thing about Monette’s narrative is simply its accurate
accumulation of mundane details. It is like a careful description of
weather — a gathering storm — or a slowly advancing, but relentless,
artillery barrage, closing in on your little foxhole. Though life will
soon be as alien as “living on the moon,” Monette’s text respects the
reality of his experience sufficiently that there is no vain striving to
rise above it, to claim that he’s anything more than a precise instance
                           AIDS      |    31
of something larger. Roger and Paul are ordinary, middle-class gay
men, accustomed to the privileges available to them, not even neces-
sarily the sort of gay men I especially like. They’re politically liberal
but not more than that, fussily self-absorbed (aren’t we all?), “out” in
homosexual terms, but not too out. All of that is part of the unheroic
attraction of Borrowed Time.
  Since Monette’s book is a chronicle of a doom foretold, the
inevitable happens: Cesar’s condition deteriorates, Roger falls ill, is
diagnosed with the deadly syndrome, and in turn, Paul tests positive
for the virus. Among their circle of friends and acquaintances, more
and more of them are struck down by what is clearly a plague. We
know all this from the very beginning of Monette’s book, as in a
Greek tragedy where the chorus opens the drama with a recitation of
the plot. Monette, looking back on the wreckage of life, ponders the
difficulty of knowing where to start. “The world around me is
defined now by its endings and its closures — the date on the grave
that follows the hyphen. Roger Horwitz, my beloved friend, died of
complications of AIDS on October 22, 1986 . . . That is the only real
date anymore, casting its icy shadow over all the secular holidays
lovers mark their calendars by,” he says in the first pages.
  Further, “the fact is, no one knows where to start with AIDS. Now,
in the seventh year of the calamity” — the time at which Borrowed
Time is being written — “my friends in L.A. can hardly recall what it
felt like any longer, the time before the sickness. Yet we all watched
the toll mount in New York, then in San Francisco, for years before it
ever touched us here. It comes like a slowly dawning horror. At first
you are equipped with a hundred different amulets to keep it far
away. Then someone you know goes into the hospital, and suddenly
you are at high noon in full battle gear.”
  Once Roger is hospitalized at the University of California at Los
Angeles, their life together, with sporadic respites over the next year
and a half, increasingly revolves around various rooms and wards at
UCLA hospital. Henceforth, they live on time borrowed from the
future they will not have. But there’s more than one sense of time here.
For gay men of their generation, there’s the “lost time” of having been
in the closet, the years before the declaration of public homosexuality
in 1969. Making up for that lost time perhaps explaims part of the
gay sexual frenzy of the 1970s, a reaction to the recognition that what
was once absolutely forbidden can be transformed into a state in
which everything is permitted. Nor is time here only borrowed from
the future. Recounting an earlier journey to Greece, Monette observes
that “people who travel have dreamlike moments where they borrow
time from the past, but it’s not out-of-body at all. The echo of the
ancient image, warrior or monk, is in you.”
                    32     |     the short version

   Finally, time borrowed from the past is the substance of writing. “I
can see us so vividly side by side in bed—reading, dozing, roaming —
always coming around again to that evening anchorage . . . At the
time I thought there were no more layers of innocence to peel . . . I
cannot say what pagan god it was, but I’d gotten in the habit, last
thing at night, of praying: Thank you for this. I’d be tucked up against
my little friend, perfectly still, and thanking the darkness for the time
we’d had — the ten years, the house, the dog, the work. I did, I
counted my blessings . . . I knew what I had and what I stood to lose.
I held it cradled in my arms, eyes open even as I slept. The night watch
from the cliffs at Thera, clear along the moon all the way to Africa.”
Thera was the Greek island city they had visited, destroyed by a vol-
cano in 1500 BCE, perhaps the source of Plato’s myth of Atlantis. A
couple of fresco paintings from its civilization survived, and like
Monette, I’ve seen them in the museum in Athens. I have a postcard.
   The rest of Borrowed Time, recounted in tones both measured and
frenetic, is a mixture of inconsolable sorrow, political rage at govern-
ments and media slow to do what they could have done to reduce the
ravages of the plague, moments of hyperventilating panic and claus-
trophobia, and eventually, exhaustion and “the desolate waking to
life alone — this calamity that is all mine, that will not end till I do.”

Living in Vancouver, I was on the periphery of AIDS, literally on the
epidemiological margins of a fatal viral epidemic. It was transmitted
mainly through sexual intercourse between gay men, and its epicen-
tres were in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other North
American cities that contained smaller but sizeable homosexual pop-
ulations. But even being on the edge of the plague was close enough
to feel the horror, to become hysterical in the middle of an afternoon,
wake up in a sweat from nightmares (and wonder if it was those
symptomatic “night sweats”), visit dying friends on the 8th floor of
St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver or in a bleak Berlin apartment,
attend countless meetings that Monette describes as “boredom in a
good cause,” remember the dead at memorial services. Close enough
to read Borrowed Time the first time, in 1988, with terror. Monette’s
account was not so different from the plagues referred to by Boccac-
cio in The Decameron, or described in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague
Year and Albert Camus’s The Plague.
  I remember calculating my degree of risk by means of a primitive
equation I’d made up: acts plus number of sexual partners minus pre-
cautions taken, over geographical location multiplied by time,
                           AIDS      |    33
equalled risk of exposure. That is, if you were the recipient in acts of
anal intercourse, and had had sex with many people without using
condoms, and if you lived in one of the plague’s epicentres at the time
of the critical mass dissemination of the virus (the early 1970s), the
odds were against you. I had lived in San Francisco for five years or
so before moving to Vancouver in the mid-1960s, just before the
main period of the virus’ silent spread, so my comparative safety was
simply a bio-geographical accident. The same was true of my bed-
room behaviour. It was only at the insistence of a sensible friend in
the early 1980s that I began to obey the protocols of a safer sex, so
again, it was more a matter of chance than prescience that provided
whatever protection I enjoyed.
  The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was attended by two
particular cruelties. Its incubation period could be as long as a
decade, so the “safer sex” procedures soon undertaken by gay com-
munities (which successfully reduced new infections) would have no
bearing on whether or not you had acquired the virus years before.
Second, there were no available medications for AIDS other than
those to alleviate the accompanying “opportunistic” infections that a
deficient immune system invited. From the mid-80s — the time of
Roger Horwitz’s death — there were experimental drug protocols,
and Monette, with his histrionic energy, chutzpah, and middle-class
gay privilege, was quick to enroll his friend in available programs,
but to no avail. Nothing worked. Retroviral inhibitor drugs, which
don’t cure AIDS but prolong life significantly, wouldn’t be available
for years.
  In 1989, the year after Monette’s Borrowed Time appeared and as a
half-million mostly American gay men continued to die, I wrote, in a
book called Buddy’s, a fantasy about “How the Plague Ended”: “It
hadn’t ended with a magic bullet, a cure, or even imperfect treat-
ments.” It ended, in gay communities, because self-education had
dramatically reduced the rate of lethal transmission. “It ended, so it
was said, because we had changed. And the change had changed us,
in ways that were not yet apparent.” And at the end, “we didn’t even
feel relief. Perhaps we permitted ourselves to take note of our exhaus-
tion.” But “what next?” We couldn’t yet turn our attention back to
everyday catastrophes. There were still committees to sit on, hotlines
to staff, the dead to bury, memorials, demonstrations, and the rest.
“Yet, we would continue to desire. We had not ceased grieving . . . we
would continue to cry our eyes out. We would find ourselves numbly
staring at the ocean on a muggy afternoon, then come to, recalling a
dinner engagement. Gradually, it would become a memory, like the
curling, yellow-edged pages of an old newspaper exposed to the air.
But when it ended, we barely noticed.” As it turned out, that effort to
                    34     |    the short version

imagine an end of the plague, at least for the limited “us” that com-
prised gay men in North America — an attempt to provide a bit of
somber political hope — was not that far off the mark. There were
“imperfect treatments,” but today, more than a decade after my fan-
tasy of it ending, gay friends remark to each other on the eery disap-
pearance of the mention of AIDS in the media, or even among
  Both the failure of governments and media to respond to AIDS and
the inadequate efforts of scientists to develop effective medications
sparked the politics of AIDS. There were two half-truths promul-
gated by gay activists, crucial to engendering support for a stricken
community, but which can now be viewed in a more balanced retro-
spective light. The first was the slogan, AIDS is not a gay disease, but
one that can strike anybody. That is of course true in a literal sense
but, in reality, the virus was introduced into a primarily gay male
population and, as epidemiologists learned, quickly and “efficiently”
disseminated and contained within that aggregate, aided in part by
that population’s sexual practices at the time. What “leakage” there
was of the virus (through blood transfusion, shared use of needles,
and heterosexual transmission via bisexual men) was limited, and the
grave anticipations of AIDS decimating the “heterosexual commu-
nity” in North America never happened. Like others, I knew that at
the time, but in the face of charges by evil Christian fundamentalists
that “AIDS was God’s punishment” of homosexuals, the claim that
anyone could come down with AIDS was a useful political fiction.
  The other half-truth concerned sites of transmission and “promis-
cuity,” and became a point of contention within gay communities as
well as outside, because it touched on one of the central premises of
gay liberation. What public homosexuality proposed at the beginning
of the 1970s was that the whole question of sexuality was up for
grabs. Conventional — i.e., conservative heterosexual —- notions
about who one slept with, how many sexual partners one had, the
motives for sexual activity, and much more, were all subject to chal-
lenge. At the time, homosexuality was news from the front-lines of
human relationships. The subtext of its challenge to conventional
sexuality — especially to the shibboleth that sex was primarily repro-
ductive or creational, rather than recreational — was a broader
attack on institutional arrangements in bourgeois society. At least
that was the case among radical adherents in Gay Liberation Front
groups (I was one of the founders of the GLF Vancouver branch). As
with other revolutionary proposals, there were excesses, in this case,
of sexual activity, as became evident in mounting statistics of venereal
diseases, hepatitis, and amoebic infections. When AIDS struck, a
decade after public homosexuality, the response was often a barely
                            AIDS      |    35
disguised homophobia. “Promiscuity,” it was claimed, violated a law
of nature; homosexuals had brought the plague upon themselves.
   In practical terms, gay bathhouses, which facilitated sexual encoun-
ters, were targetted as dangerous sites of AIDS transmission. Even
some gay men themselves called for the temporary closure of such
establishments. But for many gay activists, who had adopted the slo-
gan “Silence=death,” such proposals amounted to a betrayal of the
principles of the gay movement. Hence, their insistence that the vital
issue wasn’t the number of partners or the circumstances of sexual
encounters, but the practice of safer methods of sex. Again, while it is
literally true that transmission of the virus could occur in a single act
of “unprotected” sex, it was simply an epidemiological fact that the
number of partners and the circumstances of the encounters were fac-
tors in the rate of transmission. Though insistence on prudence
against accusations of promiscuity wasn’t the whole truth, again, its
political function was understandable.
   If “Silence=death” was a call to act-up against delinquent authori-
ties (Act-Up was the name of a prominent AIDS activist movement),
then one form of acting out, namely, shouting at governments, media
and even at each other equalled a kind of resistance. With respect to
the latter, failure to toe the party line could get you labelled as a trai-
tor. I remember one local incident, now almost comic in retrospect, in
which I found myself on the wrong side of the line. Through my old
friend John Dixon (he was also my colleague in the philosophy
department at the college where we worked), I was a member of the
board of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA),
over which Dixon presided, and which was actively engaged in issues
involving people with AIDS. One of Dixon’s contributions was a
book, Catastrophic Rights (1990), arguing for the civil right to access
to experimental drugs for those struck by catastrophic illness. I was
also a member of the board of the local AIDS organization, one of
those voluntary jobs that seemed to have more to do with bureau-
cracy, budgets and “boredom in a good cause” than the visible saving
of lives. One simply signed up and, indeed, doing so did some good.
   At one particularly untimely moment in the midst of the plague, the
local conservative government of the day proposed a quarantine law.
The proposal was in response to tuberculosis cases and had been
innocently requested by the Vancouver public health officer, someone
Dixon and I knew to be an intelligent and sensible medical official.
The initial draft of the law, however, was so loosely written that it
was reasonable for an already beleaguered gay community to see the
spectre of concentration camps. The BCCLA, like other groups,
opposed the initial draft, but rather than using the occasion to mount
a political outcry against an insensitive regime, we successfully lob-
                    36     |    the short version

bied the government to redraft the bill to remove the threat to people
with AIDS, which they did.
   Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, as one of my friends
wryly says. For supporting the redrafted measure, Dixon and I were
called onto the carpet of a gay community meeting one evening and
afforded the opportunity to be the target of a couple of hours of
angry remonstrance. An intransigent slogan of “No quarantine” was
obviously a simpler battlecry than the complexities of moderate
legalese. As it turned out — BCCLA, as usual, formed a watchdog
committee to monitor the effects of the legislation — no one with
AIDS was ever threatened with quarantine. That minor fact didn’t
prevent the appearance of vitriolic, scurrilous articles in the gay press
(even in gay newspapers that I wrote for), as much as five years after
the fact, questioning the state of my soul. Few self-delusions are more
convincing than righteous anger.
   Meanwhile, the wounded continued to die. In outposts at the mar-
gins of the plague, unlike the blitzed epicenters, the deaths may have
been epidemiologically proportional to location, but still, those dying
were not strangers to us. Fred Gilbertson was a large man in his 30s,
a friend of mine from writing groups and the gay newspaper for which
we both wrote. His interests included politics, theology and a demi-
monde of sexuality with which I was also familiar. He had been a
“character” in my book, Buddy’s, and unlike some of the other friends
I’d written about, he enjoyed his appearance as a semi-fictional figure,
taking it, as intended, as a mark of respect for him. For him, the course
of AIDS progressed swiftly. A year after his jovial appearance in my
book, when I visited him at St. Paul’s Hospital near the end, he was
physically shrunken, breathing through an oxygen mask, and without
illusions as to his fate. A few months later (I was writing an epilogue
for the paperback edition of my book), he was dead.
   Other people were acquaintances. Dixon and I spent some time
with Kevin Brown, the president of the Vancouver Persons With Aids
organization, working on medical and welfare issues for the disabled.
Brown was one of the many people whose lives became more
focused, as he told me when I interviewed him for a newspaper arti-
cle, as a result of AIDS. Suddenly, because of the disease, he had
become a spokesperson and discovered in himself a reasoned, gentle
articulateness. Another person whom I slightly knew was Jon Gates,
a social democratic activist. Even as he was dying, he had foreseen
that the epicentre of AIDS would shift to Third World countries, and
he campaigned to make drugs available to the destitute parts of the
world years before the crisis in Africa was dimly perceived by the rest
of us. A fellow member of the AIDS Vancouver board was a psychol-
ogist named David. On the last day of his life he held a farewell gar-
                           AIDS      |    37
den party for his friends and acquaintances. I was one of several peo-
ple he had asked to provide drugs for his suicide, which he committed
later that day among a circle of intimates. There were others, of
course. I attended memorial ceremonies for Warren Knechtel, a faun-
like photographer; for literature professor Rob Dunham; for political
activist Maurice Flood. All people I knew. All gone. Now, as the poet
Milosz says, “all they can do is make use of me . . . of my hand hold-
ing the pen, to return among the living for a brief moment.”
  Paul Monette did live to finish Borrowed Time and, as it turned out,
quite a bit more. His memoir was accompanied by a suite of poems,
Love Alone, in which he could rage against the dying of the light in
another key. Two novels, Afterlife and Halfway Home, and an auto-
biography, Becoming A Man, followed. Finally, there was a volume of
essays, Last Watch of the Night, published in 1995, the year of his
death, at age 50.
  Re-reading Borrowed Time, the terror of the first reading gives way
to measured grief. Grief, as Monette says, “that will not end till I do.”
                         Woody Allen

In a dream, I was having a conversation with the filmmaker and
actor Woody Allen. We were in a busy university building, the foyer
and staircase crowded with students on their way to classes. Allen
and I were talking about Hegel. Yes, Allen was saying, Hegel on the
subject of tragedy has been very important to me. But have you read
Marulla? he asked, and was surprised when I said I hadn’t. Oh, you
have to, he urged, as he approached the staircase to walk upstairs to
the seminar he was conducting. Just before the dream ended, he said,
referring ironically to something earlier in the conversation, I have to
buy a woman. You mean, I interjected, as he started up the stairs, you
have to buy a novel! Several people around us who had been listening
in as we talked burst out laughing at this, and so did Allen. I basked
in the glow of having made a successful joke in the presence of the
great comic.
   Upon waking, I puzzled over the name of the book or author Allen
had recommended, then quickly realized that there’s frequently a ver-
bal distortion or elision in dreams because of the vast distances they
have to travel on their way from the unconscious. Marulla . . .? Mar
. . . Mar . . .? Marcellus . . .? Then I got it. Allen wanted me to read
the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius!
   Allen is one of the great, if deliberately underappreciated, artists of
our time. It became fashionable in recent years, among intellectual-
ized elements of the middle classes, to display a sort of knowing con-
tempt about Allen’s films, citing their limitations, repetitiveness, and
other imagined flaws. This critical scorn intersected with scandalous
revelations about Allen’s private life, namely, that he had an affair
with his partner’s adopted daughter, whom he subsequently married.
   I’ve no objection to people criticising Allen’s messy personal affairs,
although I think they’re probably irrelevant to the estimate of his
work, or ought to be. But the criticisms of his art seem to me largely
misdirected. One of the objections is a quasi-feminist, ideological
complaint that the main character in many of his films (an obviously
Woody Allen-like alter ego) is always chasing girls and women who
are a zillion years younger than him. Leaving aside the political
debate about whether intergenerational relationships are appropri-
                        Woody Allen      |    39
ate, one of the things I like about Allen’s films is the tenacity of the
erotic pursuits of his main Woody Allen-like character, even if they are
self-admittedly neurotic. At least, Allen or his alter ego has a reason-
ably clear idea of the sort of young woman who attracts him and why,
which is more than some people can say about their objects of desire.
  Nor has he concealed his desires. In many of his films, he has inves-
tigated, in interesting ways, the source of his amorous obsessions.
Further, the women he portrays in his movies are persons as complex,
anxiety-stricken, and as “real” as the unvarnished self-portrait he
offers of himself. In one of his funniest scenes, in Deconstructing
Harry (1997), his therapist wife Joan (Kirstie Alley), who works out
of their apartment, discovers that Harry (Woody Allen) has been
screwing one of her clients. His character is portrayed as so ethically
obtuse as to be almost endearing:

 Alley: I knew when I married you that you were mentally ill, but I
 thought that because I was a professional that I could cure you.
   Allen: Hey, the last thing you want to do is get down on yourself as
 a therapist.

 A little later in their screaming match:

 Alley: How could you sleep with one of my patients? Don’t you real-
 ize that’s a sacred trust?
   Allen: We never go out. Where else am I going to find someone?

   Which is to say, Allen gets the point about his supposed moral defi-
ciencies, or minimally, his works of art are, like those of most artists,
smarter than he is. More important than judgments about his moral
life, Allen has made great films, creating them over a period of more
than three decades with the regularity of the arrival of the seasons.
The best-known ones, Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Hannah and Her
Sisters, are self-mocking yet sympathetic portraits of elements of the
New York intelligentsia and their risible contemplations of love and
death. He also authored persuasive comic meditations on the nature
of art in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway.
   In the latter, a mediocre playwright with a tin ear is forced, in order
to secure financial backing for his play, to cast a talentless actress
who is the girlfriend of a mobster. She’s accompanied to the
rehearsals by a hit man who serves as her bodyguard. The rehearsals
are a disaster, the acting wooden, the play itself stilted. The hit man
makes a small suggestion to the playwright for improving a couple of
lines in the play. At first the artist is resistant, but in the face of
impending catastrophe, he recognizes that the suggested lines have a
                    40      |    the short version

certain versimilitude, are more like what the characters would really
say. Gradually, the hit man — who, it becomes apparent, is the real
artist here — makes more suggestions, until eventually he’s rewriting
and directing the whole thing. And when it becomes clear that the
final sticking point of the production is the untalented girlfriend of
his gangster boss, the artist-hit man unflinchingly uses the tools of his
trade to hilariously solve the artistic impasse. Seldom has a comedy
about art so sure-handedly hit the target.
  At one point in Allen’s career, sometime in the 1980s, he felt the
need to make some films in the manner of his own master, Ingmar
Bergman, but in Stardust Memories, a movie about a Woody Allen-
like moviemaker attending a film festival in honour of himself, he had
the wit to conjure up some aliens landing in a spaceship. After asking
the space visitors what he should do with his life and art, their mes-
sage to him was to return to the comic aesthetic of the films of his
youth. “Tell funnier jokes,” the little green men told Allen.
  In my dream, when I delivered the punchline about having to buy a
novel rather than a woman, I must have been thinking of Allen’s story
“The Kugelmass Episode” in his book Side Effects. Kugelmass is a
professor at a New York university, his marriage is a disaster, and he’s
trying to persuade his psychotherapist that he needs to have an affair.
When his therapist resists this plea for permission to embark on an
erotic escapade, saying, You need a magician, Kugelmass dumps the
therapist. A couple of weeks later, there’s an unexpected phone call.
The caller is a magician in Brooklyn who announces himself as “Per-
sky,” then adds his stagename, “The Great Persky.” The magician’s
device is a box into which Kugelmass is placed, and the gimmick is
that if you toss a novel into the magic box, you end up travelling
through time and fiction to encounter the female protagonist of the
book. Kugelmass chooses Madame Bovary, and the story goes on to
comically detail Kugelmass’s inevitable misadventures with the
woman of his dreams. Since my name is Persky, I’ve always assumed
that I am a version of The Great Persky.
  Allen’s critics regularly announce his decline and demise — he’s lost
it all, all that’s left are one-liners and his pitiable sexual vanity, they
confidently declare — but each year there’s a “Spring Project” and a
“Fall Project.” Not everything works. No surprise there. Yet, as in the
late masterpiece, Deconstructing Harry, Allen still occasionally suc-
ceeds in combining all the signature elements and themes of his work.
He recreates his meschugene relations with his Jewish relatives.
There’s a send-up of his metaphysical preoccupations through a fully
realized portrait of Hell (with fellow comic Billy Crystal doing a turn
as the Devil). He offers reflections on making art and representations
                         Woody Allen       |    41
of desire. The hopeless tangle of all of it is endlessly, brilliantly inter-
woven into his recognition of the temporality of being.
  Near the end of the film, there’s a great scene where Allen arrives at
his small alma mater for a ceremony in his honour. Spilling out of the
vehicle which he’s precariously driven upstate from New York City
are his “kidnapped” son from a previous marriage, a gargantuan but
sensible black prostitute, the corpse of a man who has died en route,
and Allen himself, harried as always. What Allen is saying here is that
as absurd as both the voyage and the companions of the voyage may
be, this is the truth of the matter. One does argue with one’s ex-wife
about how to raise the kid. One’s desire takes the form of an Amazon,
and yet she’s interesting and tender as a person, more interesting than
the stereotypes of such persons would make her out to be. One does
have close friends, and sometimes they inexplicably die on you along
the way. In the end, we appear at the obscure ceremony to receive a
minor award, surrounded by the unexpected companions of the pres-
ent moment of the journey as well as by all the ghosts of one’s life,
still chattering, shrieking, kibbitzing, exactly as they did when they
were alive.

W   hen I was four years old, my father, Morrie Persky, bought a
blackboard on an easel for me. Across the top of the blackboard, the
alphabet was printed in white letters. My father’s method of instruc-
tion was to draw pictures I requested — a cowboy, say — and then to
write the word on the blackboard, pointing out how the letters of the
word related to the alphabet at the top of the board.
  Once I’d mastered the basics, he drew me complicitously into a rou-
tine in which I demonstrated my rudimentary spelling ability to
unsuspecting relatives. At a family gathering, he would show me off
by innocently asking, “Now, Stan, can you spell ‘cat’?”
  “C-a-t,” I replied.
  “How about ‘bat’?”
  “B-a-t,” I dutifully answered, to the silent chorus of adults nodding
  “Spell ‘rat’,” he commanded.
  Then — just as boredom was about to set in among our familial
audience — along came the punchline. “Spell ‘idiosyncrasy’,” my
father said in a deadpan voice.
  “I-d-i-o-s-y-n-c-r-a-s-y,” I rattled off. My first parlour trick.
  Now, much later, I’m tempted beyond the confines of the 26 letters
of the English alphabet. I’m attracted to letters found in other lan-
guages: the Spanish “ñ” that gives us niño and señor, or the double
“ll” for “llama” and “Mario Vargas Llosa.” Also, the small diagonal
slash across the letter “l” in Polish, pronounced as a “w,” as in the
name of the Polish labour leader, Lech Walesa, so that his last name is
pronounced “Va-wen-sa” (the “n” sound comes from a cedilla under
the “e”). I’m equally fond of the German double “s” in “Strasse,”
which has its own sign, ß, and the tongue-twisting “Schloßstraße”
(Castle Street), two streets over from where I live part-time in Berlin.
Finally, there are the various diacritical marks that can be placed
above the letter “s” in Slavic languages to produce a “sh” sound, as
in my childhood Polish nickname, “Staš.”
  Beyond that, other orthographies: Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Thai,
Greek. I’ve always wondered why there’s no equivalent in English to
                         Alphabet    |    43
Greek’s sensible “theta” sign for the “th” sound. I guess it’s just a
matter of linguistic, um, idiosyncrasy. I suppose I should be grateful
that my ABC’s are not predicated on the thousands of characters in
Chinese — then there would truly be no end.
                         Angkor Wat


I’m a more-than-reluctant traveller. I have no desire to go anywhere.
I just want to sit at my desk in Vancouver and read and write. Walk-
ing up to my local supermarket on 4th Avenue is my idea of a big
   Yet, again and again, I’ve gone to the ends of the earth, as if pos-
sessed by the ancestral gene of the Wandering Jew. I never intend to
go, since, as I say, I have no desire to go anywhere. So, how to account
for my presence at various times, over many years, in Gdansk, Berlin,
Tirana, Vilnius, Naples, Mexico City, Managua, Shanghai, Bangkok,
Angkor Wat?
   I always seem to back into destinations. It is as if it’s not me who
wants to go to a particular place, but rather that the place is calling
me to it. I know that is a romantic fantasy, but often that’s the way it
feels. Take Angkor Wat, an abandoned once-thriving Cambodian
city-civilization from about 800–1450 CE, which surely meets the
definition of the ends of the earth.
   I was visiting Bangkok, Thailand, in early 2002 — not because I
wanted to, of course, but because a friend of mine, Dan Gawthrop,
was living there, and encouraged me to visit him. At the Malaysia
Hotel where I was staying, I met a friendly middle-aged American
from Kansas City named Larry who, one morning at breakfast, told
me he wanted to go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and was looking for
a travelling companion.
   It hadn’t occurred to me to go there, but I saw when I located it on a
map that Angkor Wat wasn’t far, just across the Thai-Cambodian
border. What’s more, I’d vaguely heard it had recently been re-opened
to tourists. This was after some three horrific decades in Cambodia:
first, American invasion in the early 1970s, followed by civil war and
the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, then conquest by neighbour-
ing Vietnam, and finally, a decade of “normalized” but bloody
internecine politics. Now the situation was temporarily stable.
   I was tempted, having heard of Angkor Wat as one of the fabled
temple sites of Southeast Asia, one of the “seven wonders of the
world.” But for some minor reason — I think the airfare struck me as
                        Angkor Wat      |    45
unreasonable — I held off. When Larry returned to Bangkok, just
before heading home to the States, he gave me an enthusiastic
account of his visit, and the idea of going there stayed in my mind.
  A month later, in February 2002, I found myself at a Bangkok
travel agency. It was just down the street from my hotel, a place I
often passed on my way to the neighbourhood internet café in a nar-
row lane around the corner. The computer shop was a picturesque
place filled with wall clocks, a large gloomy aquarium, and ten-year-
old Thai kids playing Harry Potter video games. A rooster in a pen
across the lane crowed regularly at an ear-splitting pitch. Passing the
travel agency on the way back to the hotel, I thought nothing more
profound than, Oh, what the hell, I’ll just check the fares; it doesn’t
commit me to anything. So, I figuratively backed in. The overland
fare was not only reasonable but ridiculously cheap.
  A few days later, at 7 a.m., I was crammed into a mini-van with a
half-dozen or so young foreign backpackers and we were on the high-
way to the border. I’m usually okay once I get to where I’m going but
while in transit I assume the petrified posture of a frightened rabbit.
The backpackers, dressed in shorts and floppies, were all in pairs, and
at least thirty years younger than me, the only solitary traveller in the
group. The American couple sitting next to me were “doing” Asia, a
half-dozen destinations in two or three weeks, and seemed perfectly
at home in the cramped vehicle, their feet propped up on their enor-
mous rucksacks, eating junk food and mildly debating the compara-
tive merits of the pop novelists whom they were respectively reading,
John Grisham and Stephen King (they seemed to favour the literary
merits of the horror writer King). They were slightly puzzled that I
was staying in Bangkok for a couple of months — what could one
possibly find to do there over such a long time? — and quickly turned
their attention back to their thrilling paperbacks.
  After five or six hours on the road, we reached the border. There’s a
Wild West frontier town, Popit (pronounced “Po-peet”), that you
enter after going on foot through the usual complicated customs sta-
tions. Two things were immediately visible: gambling casinos and
bread. The garish gambling palaces, built in the style of equivalent
temples of chance in Las Vegas, are apparently for well-to-do Thai
tourists. The bread, sold by kids who approach you as soon as you hit
Cambodian customs, is a cultural vestige of French colonialism, since
bread isn’t a major feature of southeast Asia’s rice-based cuisine. I
bought a small loaf, which was crusty, delicious, and suddenly exotic
after a couple of months of seldom seeing any bread except the toast
that the hotel in Bangkok provided for Western breakfasts.
  After getting our documents stamped, we were reassembled behind
a corrugated metal fence in an empty lot that seemed to be a combi-
                    46      |    the short version

nation of garbage dump and informal bus depot, to wait for the vehi-
cle taking us to Siem Reap, the Cambodian town closest to the
Angkor Wat site. Through an arrangement between the Thai and
Cambodian travel agencies, various tourists in the mini-vans are
combined into a larger group and shifted onto a bus. While standing
around, amid heaps of trash and various vehicles, waiting for our bus
to appear, I reflected that the striking thing about travel is not just the
landscapes but how you become familiar with an instant, if transient,
group of people — backpackers, drivers, travel agents, vendors,
guides and others just hanging about.
  I was mainly and anxiously oriented to a young woman in her
twenties named Ma, an obviously bright, efficient person who was in
charge of the complicated business of ferrying the travellers across
the border and recombining them onto the buses for the Cambodian
stage of the trip. My anxiety about keeping her in sight diminished
once we were at the assembly site and I was reasonably sure I wasn’t
going to become a lost straggler, abandoned in the middle of
nowhere. We had to wait an hour or so. I fell into conversation — in
a sort of pidgin made up of various languages — with a teenage boy
who was a guide in Popit. He bought a couple of meat kebobs from a
passing vendor and immediately offered me one of them. The friend-
liness of his unexpected gesture jolted me out of my uneasy anticipa-
tion of the future back to the present and, within a few minutes in
that bedraggled garbage-strewn lot, in the afternoon sun, I began to
fantasize a sort of life that I might lead in that border town. I could
see a table in a motel room at which I would sit, reading and writing.
I think that’s the feature of travelling — in which we reconfigure our
selves in an imaginary way — that changes us.
  The vehicle was an ancient, unreliable-looking, battered school bus.
The heat was 30-plus degrees outside and there was no air-condition-
ing. I sat up front, behind the driver. He kept the folding front door
open to get some air circulating. At the last minute, as we were
pulling out, a teenage boy hopped on, not the one I’d been talking
with earlier.
  The road on the Cambo side, in contrast to the smooth four-lane
Thai highway, was unpaved, bumpy hard pan. It was the dry season
and everything was coated in a layer of fine tan-coloured dust. Once
the driver got the bus up to speed, he had to close the door to keep the
dust out. It was hot inside, and there was nothing to do but settle in
and gaze at the seemingly featureless landscape — seemingly feature-
less only because I didn’t know what I was looking for — as the bus
headed in a descending direction down the long ribbon of mostly
traffic-free hard pan. The Cambodian teenager introduced himself.
His name was Vonnie, he spoke English, and was an Angkor Wat
                        Angkor Wat      |    47
guide from Siem Reap. He came up to Popit regularly and rode the
bus back with the aim of securing some business from the travellers
headed to Angkor.
   Every once in a while, the bus passed through an inhabited place.
As you got near a town, the view changed into agricultural landscape.
The rice fields were dry at this time of the year, so you could see the
banked-up borders of hard earth that enclosed them, and a system of
what looked to be irrigation channels and reservoir pits. The earth-
rimmed fields were designed to keep the rice partially submerged in
water during the growing season. The towns were a sudden jumble of
life, startling after the long stretch of desolate road between habita-
tions. The houses were made of wood and set on stilts because of the
flood season, there were groves of banana and other trees, now cov-
ered in dust, and there were children everywhere, along with the
occasional tethered water buffalo, wandering chickens, and pigs nos-
ing about. It was a quick blur of liveliness — kids playing, people
washing clothes, a bit of a marketplace — and then we were back on
the empty jostling road.
   It wasn’t until we passed through the third or fourth farming village
that I realized that the whole point of going overland was to see pre-
cisely this: how the people lived. The noticeable feature of life was the
enormous number of kids. I’d read somewhere that the population of
Cambodia was 13 million now, about half again as many as the about
7 or 8 million it had been in the 1970s. And if more than half of them
were under 15, that meant that the majority of the population hadn’t
been born at the time of the genocide in Cambodia. For teens like
Vonnie, the gruesome image of “the killing fields” was just a piece of
history, as it was for most of the backpackers aboard the bus. Only a
middle-aged woman I glimpsed for an instant in one of the villages, or
an elderly traveller might have the horror as a direct or indirect mem-
ory. So, this is a divided society: grandparents and parents who lived
through hell, and their children for whom the horrors are stories.
   It was a long ride, eight hours or more, with a late afternoon lunch
break in the one sizeable town on the route, and a few rest stops
along the way. As it was growing dark, something appeared in the
distance that might be a city, but it was at least a couple of hours
away. Vonnie had circulated among the backpackers, looking for
business, and now dropped into the seat next to mine for the end of
the haul. It was dark when we reached Siem Reap. I had tried to
memorize the map of the town in my guide book, but I quickly lost
track of where I was as we turned this way and that through the
streets. Instead of anything like a sense of direction all I have is the
sort of blurry visual field that 19th century French impressionist
painters invented. I couldn’t get any sense of the streets at night —
                    48      |    the short version

there were only shadowy buildings and the occasional patch of light
provided by a flicker of neon or a string of coloured lightbulbs. The
bus rolled into a compound behind a backpacker hostel.
  Since I was a middle-class tourist rather than a backpacker, I asked
Vonnie if he knew how to find the hotel noted in my guide book, the
Golden Angkor. He’d take me there on his motorbike, he told me.
First he had to help unload the rucksacks from the bus. I stood at the
edge of the bustling crowd of backpackers, people from the hostel,
and various kids with motorbikes in the warm, anxiety-tinged night.
Then I was on the back of Vonnie’s motorbike, clutching my satchel
with one hand, and Vonnie with the other, weaving through the dark
streets of Siem Reap.
  My expectations of catastrophe, as almost always, were happily
unfulfilled. We neither crashed nor was I abandoned in the middle of
nowhere. The Golden Angkor, once we arrived, turned out to be a per-
fectly nice middle-class hotel, they had a room free, there was a Thai
restaurant next door, and the room had a writing table. Angkor Wat,
Vonnie explained, was about a half hour out of town. You could get
there by motorbike — that’s how he made his living, taking tourists
out to the site — or rent a car and driver. I preferred the latter. He said
he would arrange for me to be picked up at 10 o’clock the next morn-
ing. So, there I was, safe for the night in the middle of nowhere — but
not nowhere for Vonnie and the other people of Siem Reap, a city of
about 800,000 people. Safe, showered, fed, seated at my writing table,
memorizing basic greetings and numbers in Cambodian, which uses a
system based on the number five. So, ten is double-five.

In the morning there was no problem getting a little metal tankard of
coffee from the Thai restaurant next door and bringing it up to my
room. After my morning coffee and reading, I took a walk through
the streets of Siem Reap. In the hazy, soft sunlight, the villa-like build-
ings still carried a trace of the town’s French colonial provincial his-
tory, which had lasted until the mid-20th century. There were several
construction sites with new hotels going up. The streets carried a sur-
prising amount of traffic. Even though the map in my mind and the
streets seemed to correlate, I wasn’t very venturesome, going just far
enough to identify various nearby restaurants, a place that sold post-
cards and stamps, a drugstore. At 10, the car and its elderly driver
appeared as promised, along with Vonnie on his bike. I asked Vonnie
how much he charged for a day’s services, and hired him to walk me
around the site, since the driver, who looked older than me and only
                        Angkor Wat      |    49
spoke Cambodian, didn’t seem a likely guide. As a middle-class eld-
erly foreigner who was only likely to see Angkor Wat once in his life,
I wasn’t tempted to skimp.
   The reason for this considerable narrative of utterly mundane travel
details and the self-portrait of a timorous narrator-traveller is to
make the contrast with the splendour of Angkor Wat as sharp as pos-
sible. Despite the fame of its great temple, Angkor isn’t just the gigan-
tic, moat-surrounded, five-towered 12th century building that is
mainly referred to by that name. Instead, Angkor is the name of a civ-
ilization that occupied a considerable interior region of Cambodia,
from the once fish-filled Great Lake at the south to the Kulen Plateau
in the north, all of it located partway between what would become
the modern Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to the southeast (and
the Mekong River delta further south), and the Thai kingdom to the
northwest. So, when you go through the toll station at the entrance to
the Angkor grounds and pay the fee (in American dollars), you’re
entering an area of a hundred square kilometres or more, with fifty or
so temples, and the remains of the towns and water reservoirs built
by successive dynasties over a 600-year period.
   We drove along a fairly busy road for about ten minutes — already
at that hour there were busloads of tourists, people on bicycles and
motorbikes, pick-up trucks — until we were moving parallel to the
moat, on the other side of which was Angkor Wat. The driver pulled
into a large, dusty, tree-shaded parking lot opposite the temple.
Behind the lot was a row of open, barn-like sheds with restaurants
and souvenir stands. The tourists getting out of vehicles were quickly
surrounded by groups of kids hawking postcards, T-shirts, and other
   Vonnie took me to the low stone bridge across the moat that leads
directly to the main entrance of the temple. The first sense of the mag-
nitude of the place is the scale of the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.
It is some 200 metres wide, and retained on both its inner and outer
banks by walls of laterite and huge blocks of sandstone, cut to fit one
against the next, all of which cover a distance of about 10 kilometres.
At the moment, rather than reflect on the precise facts of the size of
Angkor, I simply went on the impressions I had of the moat’s vast
placid waters and the munificence of the bevelled towers ahead,
located behind the arcaded outer walls of the temple. I picked up the
details later on, reading Charles Higham, the leading Western archeo-
logical expert on the region, author of the rather dry but informative
The Civilization of Angkor.
   From the inner edge of the moat there’s a flat grassy expanse,
beyond which stand the outer walls, about 4 or 5 metres high. The
bridge across the moat is linked to the main entrance via a causeway
                    50     |     the short version

whose balustrades are in the form of sculpted mythical beasts,
dragon-like animals known as nagas. Inside the walls, there are a
series of galleries, lotus towers, and various side temples that com-
prise the heart of the complex. The walls of the outermost gallery are
covered with bas-reliefs illustrating the life of the king and his court
at Angkor in the 12th century. Accompanied by Vonnie, I wandered
through the labyrinth of the temple for two or three hours, clamber-
ing over stone doorsteps, ascending the towers, meeting statues of
gods, wandering through sunlight into dark inner chambers.
  So, what am I seeing, I asked myself at some point — or maybe at
every point — in the process of moving from scene to scene within the
temple. How does the site of this once-upon-a-time civilization mesh
with the tangle of individual memory and imagination constructed
over a lifetime? First, all travel that’s interesting is a kind of time-
travel, or else it is merely two-dimensional. Here, it’s 2002 and at the
same time, roughly 1150 CE. Angkor is a faerie castle of childhood
books, the Lost City in the jungle, the actual Magic Kingdom, as con-
trasted to kitschy, cartoon-based simulacra of various Disney theme
parks around the world, safe holiday destinations for vacationing
family ensembles.
  There’s an important, complex oppositional relationship between
sprawling actual historical sites — Angkor, the Acropolis at Athens,
the Egyptian Pyramids, those in Mexico, etc. — no matter how tarted
up for tourists, and the carefully manufactured fakes. Nor are the
theme parks only located in nations with relatively brief national his-
tories like the United States, which might otherwise be a reason for
their popularity there. They also appear in societies with millennia-
long traditions, and have become a phenomena of globalization. Ian
Buruma, a Western scholar of Asian culture, points out that one of
the cultural conundrums of contemporary China, Japan, Singapore,
and other parts of East Asia is the craze for theme parks, an extraor-
dinary proliferation of which are woven into the new commercial
urban landscapes. “They are to East Asian capitalism what folk danc-
ing festivals were to communism,” Buruma notes. They’re all over
Asia, and “are sometimes as quickly abandoned as they were built, or
even before they were finished . . . What is curious is not just the insa-
tiable taste for these fantasy places, but the fact that they often blur
seamlessly into the ‘real’ urban landscape.”
  Buruma is primarily interested in figuring out the political relation-
ship between the theme parks, as well as other replications and simu-
lacra, and the ultimately similar communist and capitalist regimes of
the region. “So why are Chinese officials prepared, or even eager, to
tear down physical evidence of a real past and replace it with
copies?” he wonders. “Why do they appear to be happier with virtual
                        Angkor Wat      |    51
history? And what lies behind the ubiquitous taste for Western theme
parks, for creating an ersatz version of abroad at home?”
  Whether considering authoritarian Singapore, the dubious democ-
racy of Japan, or the communist version of capitalism of China,
Buruma believes “there is something inherently authoritarian about
theme parks, and especially the men who create them. Every theme
park is a controlled utopia, a miniature world where everything can
be made to look perfect . . . [and] nothing is left to chance.”
  The theme parks, like globalized mega-malls, are themselves
utopian models for the societies in which they’re located, and which
those societies are meant to increasingly resemble. As Buruma
remarks, “Singapore, once likened to a Disneyland with the death
penalty, is truly a place where nothing is left to chance.” Everything is
“subject to elaborate guidelines, more or less forcefully imposed.”
Among the uncertain political prospects of post-Maoist China, one of
them, he suggests, is that the country, “as a continent-sized Singa-
pore, will be the shining model of authoritarian capitalism, saluted by
all illiberal regimes, corporate executives, and other PR men . . . the
whole world as a gigantic theme park, where constant fun and games
will make free thought redundant.”
  As-yet-undeveloped Cambodia, by contrast, has to make do with
merely real history. Angkor Wat is relatively uncontrolled. There are
a few paths marked off as not yet cleared of landmines, the occa-
sional rope restraining barrier before the bas-reliefs on the walls of
the galleries, and some uniformed official guides available for hire.
Vonnie told me it was his ambition to ascend into their ranks one day.
But the visitors were free to scramble around the site, skinning their
knees on some precarious steep stairway up the side of a tower, free,
in other words, to make whatever they can of the historical reality in
which they find themselves. The first disjuncture, then, is one of
ontology, of being in the presence of something real in a world whose
character is increasingly virtual, not just by way of manufactured
spectacle, but including all the digitalia of TV screens, computers,
and relentless optics.
  Second, as against the ahistorical contemporary theme parks,
which can only be read as a set of signs of postmodernism, at places
like Angkor, you’re confronted with the half-solved historical puzzles
of a vanished civilization. The story, albeit fragmentary, is put
together by scholars like Higham, from the surviving stone or brick
temples, archeological remains of the now dried-out great water
reservoirs, and most important, scattered texts throughout the
region. The “stone inscriptions set into these monuments,” says
Higham, “provide a vital social overlay to the skeletal archeological
remains. These usually incorporate, in Sanskrit, the name or names of
                    52     |    the short version

the founders, the presiding god and the date. Further information fol-
lows in Khmer. The names of the king or benefactor and the gods are
repeated. Although Hindu gods are often named, with a preference
for Shiva, local gods are also mentioned. We find reference to the god
of the cloud, a tree, the old and the young god, and the god at the
double pond . . . “ The characteristic inscription lists the amount of
land belonging to the temple, its boundaries, productive capacities,
the names of people assigned to maintain the temple, and a royal
warning against violating the rules of the establishment. The texts are
absolutely specific. One, reports Higham, “records the assignment of
17 dancers or singers, 23 or 24 record keepers, 19 leaf sewers, 37
artisans including a potter, 11 weavers, 15 spinners and 59 rice field
workers of whom 46 were female.”
  The textual records also attest to the power of the kingdom’s rulers.
About Indravarman, a late 9th century king, the inscription says that
“the right hand of this prince, long and powerful, was terrible in
combat when his sword fell on his enemies, scattering them to all
points of the compass. Invincible, he was appeased only by his ene-
mies who turned their backs in surrender.” This claim was engraved
on the foundation stone of a temple in 879 CE, followed by a pledge
made on the king’s accession: “Five days hence, I will begin digging.”
Indravarman lived up to his promise, constructing a huge reservoir of
unprecedented size, 3800 metres long and 800 wide, which is
recorded in another inscription: “He made the [reservoir], mirror of
his glory, like the ocean.”
  Angkor Wat was built some 300 years later, the enduring temple of
Suryavarman II, and without question, agree the scholars, the out-
standing achievement of the civilization of Angkor. The foundation
stone, mentioned by later visitors, is missing. What we know is that
the temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and opens onto
the west, the god’s quarter of the compass. For all its present splen-
dour, Higham tells us, Angkor Wat today is but a grey reflection of its
former state. Traces of gilded stucco remain on the central tower, and
an early 17th century Japanese visitor reported gilding over the stone
bas-relief panels. In the 12th century, it was literally a golden palace.
The 4-metre-high statue of Vishnu remains, still venerated.
  In the great illustrated galleries, I came upon the bas-relief panel of
Suryavarman himself, sitting in state upon a wooden throne. He
wears a pointed crown, heavy ear ornaments, a necklace, armlets,
and bracelets. Straps crisscross his pectorals, and there are anklets
above his feet, which are drawn up in a half-lotus posture. A forest of
parasols, large fans, and fly whisks surrounds him as he receives his
ministers, named in the inscriptions, offering scrolls and holding their
hands over their hearts, signalling loyalty and deference.
                        Angkor Wat       |   53
  Other sections of the gallery walls show scenes from the Hindu
epics, massive battles with hand to hand combat; Yama, the god of
death, sitting on a water buffalo, determining the fate of each person;
a depiction of “the churning of the ocean of milk in search of the
elixir of immortality.”
  But the specific purpose and symbolic meaning of Angkor remain
elusive. A temple, sure, but also a mausoleum for Suryavarman? The
central towers, the scholars think, represent the peaks of Mount
Meru, home of the Hindu gods, while the moat possibly symbolizes
the surrounding ocean, but even if Angkor and its counterparts are
intended as earthly representations of Paradise — the temple as para-
dise theme park? — the explanations are thin and unsatisfactory. Did
the outer wall enclose residential areas and the king’s palace? Where
did the rice-growing peasants live? What about burial rites?
  If much of the history is patchy, one macro-feature of the civiliza-
tion is clearer. In addition to its reality, and what we can piece
together of its history, the third thing about Angkor civilization is, in
a Marxist sense, its mode of production. What Angkor is founded on
is rice, water, and labour — surplus rice, control of water, and the
ability to organize, protect and exploit labour power. The mode of
rice cultivation in the region is what’s known as flood retreat agricul-
ture. As the waters of the flood season subside, the rice grows in the
half-submerged earth-banked fields. The point of the farming village
fields I saw on the road to Siem Reap now becomes clear. The func-
tion of the giant reservoirs scattered throughout the region, however,
remains something of a mystery, though one would immediately
imagine some sort of irrigation system as the dry season sets in.
Higham leads readers through an unresolved scholarly controversy
about whether or not the reservoirs were for irrigation or other uses.
But in the end, it is a surplus of rice, controlled by the warriors
through force, that is the basis of dynastic power. Rice makes possible
parasols, fans, fly whisks, kings on thrones, artists to make gilded
stone bas-reliefs of the sinuous bejewelled body of Suryavarman.

Vonnie and I made our way back across the bridge over the moat,
found our driver in the shaded parking lot, and I took both of them to
lunch in one of the barn-like sheds that housed the restaurants. Then
we got into the car again and drove along a winding, forested road,
north to Angkor Thom, a city built by the regime succeeding the one
that built Angkor Wat. At the entrance to the city is a stone gate
about 25 metres high, a heap of columns forming a rough arch,
                    54     |    the short version

topped by sculptures of giant, broad-faced, Buddha-like heads in
elaborate headgear. In the centre of Angkor Thom is its main temple,
with fifty or more of the same half-smiling, immense sandstone heads
as the ones at the entrance gate. The heads are carved into the temple
towers. I clambered over the stone slabs of the temple stairways,
cracked and broken over time, crawling up onto a terrace a third of
the way up the towers.
  Angkor Thom is the creation of a king named Jayavarman VII, who
was crowned in 1181, after a turbulent period of warfare in which he
repulsed a water-borne invasion — up the Mekong and Tonle Sap
rivers and across the Great Lake — by a rival kingdom to the east.
During Jayavarman’s reign, this great new city north of Angkor Wat
was constructed, with the traditional moat, city walls about 3 kilo-
metres long on all sides, pierced by the entrance gateways and their
colossal heads, one of which we had passed through, and an array of
temples and palaces.
  On the walls of the principal temple, as at Angkor Wat, there are
bas-reliefs providing a glimpse of life during Jayavarman’s rule. In
addition to the familiar battle scenes, the striking feature of the
Angkor Thom bas-reliefs is scenes of domestic life that give us some
visual sense of the everyday world of Angkor civilization. In one
panel, a woman in labour is being helped by midwives. In another
scene, two men are hunched over a game resembling chess. Workers
are shaping building stones with chisels in another sculpted picture,
and lifting them by means of a lever. Fishermen are casting nets and
hauling in their catch, women are selling the fish in a marketplace.
Crowds of onlookers watch a cockfight. A man carries a rice basket,
another drives an ox-cart. For scholars and visitors alike, the domes-
tic bas-reliefs are like a newsreel documentary of everyday life. They
flesh out the details of the inscriptions, which record that 2740 offi-
cials and 2202 assistants lived and worked in Jayavarman’s royal city,
and 12,640 people had residential rights within the walls. To feed and
clothe this population, there are scrupulously listed quantities of rice,
honey, molasses, oil, fruit, sesame, millet, beans, butter, milk, and all
clothing materials; “even the number of mosquito nets is set down,”
as Higham notes. Assigned to supply the temple were 66,265 men
and women, a figure rising to 79,365 if you include foreign Burmese
and Cham workers.
  A century later, there’s a final, unprecedented, remarkable text
available for Angkor civilization. The king at the end of the 13th cen-
tury is also named Jayavarman and the tangled politics of his regime
are unclear, other than for the evidence that part of the ideological
struggle involved religion. This Jayavarman, the eighth in the line of
that name, was, as Higham reports, a worshipper of Shiva and an
                        Angkor Wat      |    55
iconoclast who destroyed or modified every image of the Buddha that
the two preceding regimes had created. If you really wanted to know
anything about Angkor you’d have to sort out the ideas associated
with Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha, and the rest. But the complex subject of
the struggles between various belief systems promoting rival gods and
philosophies can be left aside here. What’s of interest during Jayavar-
man’s regime is that there’s an eyewitness, one who eventually sat at
the equivalent of a writing table. He’s the man with whom I identify.
   He was Chinese and his name is Zhou Daguan. He arrived in
August 1296 as a member of a diplomatic mission from the Chinese
emperor to Cambodia, and he stayed as a guest in a house in Angkor
Thom for eleven months, observing life at the court, in the capital,
and in the countryside. After his return to China, Zhou wrote an
account of his visit, which survived in the Chinese archives, and was
first translated into French in the late 18th century.
   Zhou describes the city, with its moat and walls, the gold-covered
stone heads at the gates, which were closed each night and opened
again in the morning, with only “dogs and criminals who had had
their toes cut off . . . barred entry.” Angkor Thom’s golden temples
are recorded, along with the royal palace, the tile-roofed houses of
the nobility and the homes of the lower classes, roofed with thatch. In
the middle-class home in which Zhou lived for almost a year, the
floor is covered by matting, but there is no furniture. Rice is husked
in a mortar and cooked in ceramic vessels on a clay stove. Family
members and Zhou sit on mats and eat from ceramic or copper
plates. A half-coconut shell serves as a ladle, small cups made of
woven leaves contain sauces. They drink wine made from honey and
rice. At night, everyone sleeps on mats laid out on the floor, but it is
so hot that people often get up during the night to bathe. Two or
three families arrange for a ditch to be dug for use as a latrine, which
is covered with leaves.
   Zhou also provides an account of the life of the city, punctuated
with religious festivals, fireworks, parades, martial art displays on
elephants, and the twice daily royal audiences given by the king. But
it is in that house where Zhou lived for a year that the human figures
begin to move for us in the present tense, where those countless lives
now utterly lost to memory have a momentary vividness.

Just at the instant of exhaustion in the mid-afternoon sun, as the visu-
al data blurred and I dreaded the prospect of a further excursion, Von-
nie casually mentioned that we could drive back to Siem Reap for a
                    56     |    the short version

mid-day break, and then return to Angkor Wat that evening to watch
the sunset, apparently the custom of both tourists and local inhabi-
tants. Back in the cool hotel room in Siem Reap, I showered, napped,
sat at the writing table with my notebook, like Zhou Daguan.
  In the early evening we drove back to the now recognizable great
temple of Angkor Wat. The road was crowded with local people on
bicycles and motorbikes who came out for picnic dinners along the
grassy banks around the moat. I sat on the steps of one of the temple
entrances, facing west, watching the sun slide below the tops of dis-
tant groves of trees.
  Back in Siem Reap that night, I ate at one of the restaurants I’d
noted on my morning walkabout, practiced my few phrases of Cam-
bodian on the waiters, took an after dinner walk. On the edges of
town were the shadowy hotel construction sites, not middle-class
hotels, but luxury dwellings going up for a different class of tourist
who would jet in from Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Tokyo. On the way
back from Angkor, I had glimpsed a half-dozen giant gift emporia,
temples for consumers. There was a current of uncertain excitement
among the people I met, a kind of boom-town atmosphere. Those
like Vonnie were quickly learning English. We’d run into some Japan-
ese tourists at the site that afternoon, and I noticed that he’d already
picked up enough Japanese for rudimentary conversations. The
strangers who came to town were an opportunity, and it was all
recent enough that the local Cambodians were still a little unsure
about what these wealthy foreigners wanted, tentative about what
should be offered, how flirtatious to be.
  The next morning we drove out to the site and Vonnie walked me
through various temples at a greater distance from Angkor Wat. The
most energetic trek was to a temple atop a hill that you reached by
scrambling up a long slope of broken rock. Once you reached the
summit upon which the temple was perched, you could climb up its
vertiginous staircases for a panoramic view of the countryside. The
hike up the slope, however, was enough for me. I could see the towers
of Angkor poking up in the forested distance. Noticing that I wasn’t
enthusiastic about the clamber down, Vonnie suggested that we could
take the road at the back of the hill, a dirt path that wound gently
downward. The main traffic consisted of elephants carrying tourists
up and down, to and from the temple. When an elephant approached
I pressed against the inner edge of the road to let the great swaying
beast pass.
  That was enough. I’d seen what it was possible for me to take in,
unless I was planning to stay for a much longer time. We made a duti-
ful stop at one of the gift temples on the way back to Siem Reap, but
                        Angkor Wat      |    57
I’d already bought an Angkor Wat T-shirt from one of the kids hawk-
ing them in the parking lot, and there wasn’t anything else I wanted.
I’d seen it.

Angkor Wat was sacked in 1431 by the Thais, whose kingdom was
based at Ayyuthaya, just north of Bangkok. It was then abandoned to
the jungle. The subsequent history of Angkor is one of its “reception”
— of how it was seen and understood — by explorers, colonial visi-
tors, and now tourists like me.
  In the late 16th century, some hundred and fifty years after it had
been abandoned, Portuguese traders and missionaries became aware
of a great city hidden deep in the wilds of Cambodia. The Portuguese
had heard stories of a Cambodian king named Satha, who, while on
an elephant hunt, with his retainers beating a path through the jungle
undergrowth, was brought up short by stone giants and a massive
wall. According to the account, Satha ordered a work-party of sev-
eral thousand men to clear away the jungle, thus exposing the lost
cities of Angkor civilization.
  One of the first foreigners was a Capuchin friar, Antonio de Mag-
dalena, who explored the ruined city in 1586. Three years later,
shortly before the friar’s death in a shipwreck, he gave an account of
his visit to Diogo do Couto, official historian of the Portuguese Indies.
“This city is square, with four principal gates, and a fifth which serves
the royal palace,” wrote do Couto, setting down the friar’s recollec-
tions. “The city is surrounded by a moat, crossed by five bridges . . .
The stone blocks of the bridges are of astonishing size. The stones of
the wall are also of an extraordinary size and so joined together that
they look as if they are made of just one stone . . . the source of which
is, amazingly, over 20 leagues away . . .”
  The 16th century account goes on to record that “half a league
from this city is a temple called Angar. It is of such extraordinary con-
struction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly
since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and deco-
ration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive
of . . . The temple is surrounded by a moat, and access is by a single
bridge, protected by two stone tigers so grand and fearsome as to
strike terror into the visitor.”
  Two decades later, in 1609, Bartolomé de Argensola wrote, “One
finds in the interior within inaccessible forests, a city of 6,000 homes,
called Angon. The monuments and roads are made of marble, and
                    58     |     the short version

are intact. The sculptures are also intact, as if they were modern.
There is a strong wall. The moat, stone-lined, can admit boats . . .
There are epitaphs, inscriptions, which have not been deciphered.
And in all this city—the natives discovered it—there were no people,
no animals, nothing living. I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears
as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.” I too hesitate.
  French missionaries entered the region in the 17th century; at the
end of the next century Zhou Daguan’s memoir was published in
Paris; and in the mid-19th century, with Cambodia now a French
protectorate, a steady flow of mostly French explorer-naturalists,
photographers, and archeological scholars began the study and
restoration of the monuments. The obscure volumes of the memoirs
of the often strange, wandering, fever-wracked men — I later read
one by Henri Mouhot — can be found occasionally in Bangkok
  The next morning, I sat on a bench in front of the Golden Angkor,
along with some local drivers, anxiously wondering whether the bus
bound for Bangkok would actually appear. The desk clerk had assured
me more than once that he had been in contact with Ma, the woman
who handled the travel arrangements. I saw it as a problem in logistics
equivalent to the provisioning of Napoleon’s army in Russia, and like-
ly to have the same doomed outcome. Well, that overstates it, but only
a little, at least from the viewpoint of the reluctant traveller. The bus
arrived, the backpackers were aboard, and we pulled out of Siem
Reap, back onto the highway towards Popit, the border station, and
then onto Bangkok. A young French couple was sitting alongside me.
“How did you like Angkor?” I asked. The woman said, “Oh, the tem-
ples are all right, but we’re more interested in, you know, the people.”
  That night the bus pulled into the driveway of the Malaysia Hotel
in Bangkok. There was an odd rush of feeling as I recognized and was
greeted by the familiar faces of the desk clerks, the bellman by the ele-
vator, the waitresses standing at the entrance to the hotel coffee shop.
Did you have a good trip, they asked. “Yes,” I said, “it was astonish-
ing,” then added, as do all returning travellers, “but it’s good to be
home.” In time-travel, what you learn is that home is in the middle of
nowhere, as are we all.

T  he answer to the titular question of Clive Wynne’s Do Animals
Think? (2004) is: Not very much. I mention this not only to dispel
unnecessary suspense but because the students in the first-year uni-
versity philosophy classes that I teach often believe that their dogs,
cats, budgies, and goldfish are thinking pretty much the same
thoughts they are. Unfortunately, some of them are right, I point out
— but I point it out only when I’m in a snide and grumpy mood.
  Wynne, a peripatetic academic who grew up on the British Isle of
Wight and is, at last report on his book jacket, a psychology profes-
sor at the University of Florida, asks, “Are we human beings alone on
this planet in our consciously thinking minds, or are we surrounded
by knowers whose thoughts are just too alien for us to understand?”
As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously suggested, If a lion
were to speak, we would not understand what it said. Although there
is a lot of popular mysticism about animal minds, the answer Wynne
comes to in his book is that we humans are alone in the kind of think-
ing we do, at least until some recognizable artificial intelligence
comes along. Yet the urban and jungle myths persist. “If I had a
penny for every time I have been told that chimpanzees are geneti-
cally as nearly identical to us as makes no difference and, given
appropriate training, can communicate in human language,” Wynne
says, “I would have a great pile of small change.” Ditto for tales
about dolphins using “an elaborate language among themselves that
we are not smart enough to decode,” to say nothing of whale songs,
weeping elephants, and loyal hounds.
  Of course, animals are wonderful, and Wynne devotes a large part
of his book to writing charmingly about the behaviour of honeybees,
bats, pigeons and dolphins. Each species has unique sensory capabili-
ties, from the sonar of bats and dolphins, to the ability to see ultra-
violet light possessed by birds, and the sensitivity to electric and
magnetic fields experienced by some fish. “The obscure Australian
duck-billed platypus can tell if a battery has any current left in it,”
Wynne notes in one of dozens of oddball factoids he provides, then
deadpans, “though there are easier methods of testing batteries.” At
the same time that there is tremendous diversity in the animal king-
                    60     |    the short version

dom, there are shared “basic psychological processes like learning
and some kinds of memory, along with simple forms of concept for-
mation, such as identifying objects as being the same or different
from other objects . . . All of these seem to be common to a wide
range of species and to operate in similar ways in animals as diverse
as chicks and chimpanzees.”
   But there’s a difference that makes a difference. “After forty years
of trying we can say definitively that no nonhuman primate (or any
other species) has ever developed anything equivalent to human lan-
guage,” Wynne reports. Though humans are distinct, if not utterly
unique, Wynne is not at all suggesting that some “divine intervention
separates us humans from all the rest of creation. In denying human-
style language to any other species, I am not trying to lift humans up
from the beasts and closer to God . . . To admit that humans are dif-
ferent does not return them to the centre of the universe.” That is,
Wynne is a straightforward Darwinian who argues that evolutionary
development is the best explanation of human intelligence and com-
munication capacities.
   For most of the animal kingdom and nature, “red in tooth and
claw,” it looks like instinct, or hardwiring with some adaptive capac-
ities, handles most of what in humans involves thinking. And con-
versely, a lot of what humans think about doesn’t occur in the brains
of non-human animals. In case there’s any doubt about nature being
red in tooth and claw, Wynne provides lots of grisly details about the
lives of digger wasps, who paralyze beetles or locusts and deposit
them in their birthing burrows, so that when the baby wasps emerge
from their eggs, they’ll have something to munch on before digging
out into the big world. But if you interrupt the digger wasp’s birthing
routine, it’ll go back and perform the whole routine over and over, no
matter how many times you interrupt it. The wasp never figures it
out; it is hardwired to do it one way.
   Students in the philosophy classes I teach are only momentarily per-
suaded by such examples. Invariably, they return to the question,
“But how do you know that Fido and Felix aren’t thinking just like
us?” Well, I say, they give no evidence of such thinking in their behav-
iour or in their communications, presumably because they don’t have
the kinds of brains that have evolved to do that sort of thing. “But
maybe they’re thinking thoughts, anyway,” they insist, perhaps
thinking of oppressed people under dictatorial regimes who have
thoughts they don’t utter. “Any maybe they have their own way of
communicating them,” the students add, as prepared to entertain the
notion of animal psychic powers as they are to consider human psy-
chics. Even my concession that their pets are sort of thinking about
their student owners’ arrival home from school, and are happy to see
                         Animals     |    61
them, and are sort of thinking about food, walks, taking a pee, or dig-
ging up a well-remembered bone, doesn’t appear to satisfy the stu-
dents. They think me rather cruel and close-minded for denying that
their dogs and cats are pondering the prospects of the local hockey
team winning the league championship, just as they are.
  The crux of all this, and “the critical question to bear in mind is,
Has any animal succeeded in learning an open-ended language sys-
tem like our own, or have other species only mastered communica-
tion in a more closed manner . . .?” The notion of chimpanzee speech
acquisition achieved a breakthrough in 1970 when Allen and Beatrice
Gardner taught a chimp named Washoe to use about 125 Ameslan,
or deaf language, signs. “Prior to the Gardners’ research,” Wynne
observes, “the prevailing position was that chimps were incapable of
learning human language because they lacked the specialized brain
structures that underpin its comprehension and production. With the
publication of Washoe’s feats, the new received wisdom became that
chimpanzees only lacked the ability to speak.” What happened after
that was curious. The story of Washoe passed into educated popular
wisdom and became a staple of urban legend.
  While the signing chimp achieved popular currency, other
researchers were discovering the limits of chimp language acquisi-
tion. Herbert Terrace of Columbia University published Nim in
1979, an account of his work with a chimpanzee he named Nim
Chimpsky, with a little intended malice towards linguist Noam
Chomsky. Terrace began with a predisposition favouring environ-
mental factors in language learning as opposed to the innate language
acquisition mechanisms proposed by Chomsky. At the end of several
years’ work with Nim, Terrace concluded, according to Wynne, “that
what Nim was doing had little to do with language as we normally
understand it. Instead . . . the chimp had achieved a simpler form of
learning: that making certain signs led to certain consequences. The
chimp had learned to produce certain arm and hand movements to
demand things he wanted: ‘I do this; I get that.’”
  Terrace also noted several other limits to chimp learning. The
vocabulary acquired by apes, about 250 words over three or four
years, is pretty modest compared to human infant acquisition rates.
The chimps never experienced the “spurt” of language learning that
occurs in humans at about age two. Although there is a bit of contro-
versy about particular primates and their vocabularies, Wynne
reminds readers that “though it is always fashionable to bemoan the
limited vocabulary of contemporary youth, the average U.S. high
school graduate knows about 40,000 words.” I’m not sure I’ve
observed 40,000 word vocabularies in most of my students, but even
a half or a quarter of that puts it beyond mere quantitative compari-
                    62      |    the short version

son with Nim. Of course, the argument about vocabulary size in rela-
tion to chimps is subject to the objection of the irrelevance of criticiz-
ing dancing dogs, since the wonder is that they can dance at all.
  But while humans are stringing together little sentences at age three,
“this never happened to Nim. The average length of his utterances
remained stuck at only a little over one word throughout his training
period.” Even more important, neither Nim nor any of the subse-
quent language-acquiring chimps of the 1980s and 90s ever demon-
strated anything close to a minimal grasp of grammar. “And
grammar,” argues Wynne, “is what makes the difference between
being able to express a number of ideas equal to the number of words
you know and being able to express any idea whatsoever.” Grammar
is what turns lexicons into open-ended systems, and without it, you
don’t develop what we call thinking. Yes, there’s some thinking going
on in other primate species, but not much. Wynne comes to similar
conclusions about non-human primate tool-use, self-identification
and “culture.” Yes, there’s a bit of it, “but on the other hand— how
slight this culture is.” (By the way, none of these limitations is an
argument for treating animals badly.)
  “For all the excitement and all the TV documentaries,” Wynne con-
cludes, “the so-called ‘language-trained’ apes have not learned lan-
guage . . . They sign or press buttons because doing so gets them what
they want. They can be drilled to string a couple of signs together but
usually can’t be bothered. Although some of them have been in train-
ing for decades, there is nothing to suggest that any of them ever com-
prehend grammar. Grammar is the crucial lubricant that opens
language up from being limited by our vocabulary to being com-
pletely infinite in its expressive possibilities.” As Wynne says at
another point, “Without grammar there is no language.” And maybe,
without language, there isn’t much thinking.

And then: Just as I finished writing a review of Wynne’s book and
posted it on the website magazine I write for, I suddenly remembered
a book in my home library that I hadn’t thought about in years. I
went to my bookshelves, and there it was: Animal Friends, and inside
the cover (a picture of horses and colts on a farm) there was a filled-in
form noting that the book had been presented to me by my Uncle
Docky on my third birthday, January 19, 1944. It was the first book
in my library, and 60 years later, I still had it. The children’s book that
brought me closer to the world of animals would also, through its use
of language, take me irrevocably further from them.

One day in the 1980s, when apartheid still existed in South Africa, I
saw scenes of rioting in the sprawling black African township of
Soweto on the evening television news. The visuals featured menac-
ing armoured vehicles that were more tank than truck, rumbling
through the racially segregated encampment of more than a million
people, spewing tear gas and bullets.
  The next day, I was visiting my friend Tom Sandborn. He’d seen the
news, too. As we sat at a picnic table in his sunny Vancouver back-
yard, I said, “Tom, we’ve got to do something.”
  This was one of those rare occasions when the famous political
question, “What is to be done?”, had an obvious answer. The black
leadership in South Africa had called for international sanctions
against the country’s white apartheid government, sanctions that
ought to take the form, they advised, of a boycott of products
imported from South Africa. The call for sanctions received the sup-
port of the United Nations and the boycott was being enforced, albeit
haphazardly, by various countries around the world.
  One of the few exceptions to the boycott was occurring where Tom
and I lived, in British Columbia, on the west coast of faraway
Canada. Practically every other province in Canada had implemented
a boycott against South African liquor products, but not the conser-
vative provincial government of British Columbia. Even as people in
Soweto were being shot before our televisual eyes, the beefy minister
for liquor sales in British Columbia was justifying the continuing sale
of South African liquor products on the grounds of the sanctity of
consumer rights in a free market. Consumers, he argued, have the
right to individually choose whether or not to support the apartheid
government of South Africa by buying or not buying its products.
  Tom didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t engage me in theoretical argu-
ments about the efficacy of the sanctions strategy or about the incon-
venience of engaging in acts of civil disobedience, topics that were the
subject of extended hand-wringing in newspaper columns and among
political activists. Instead, we went straight to his basement and
began rehearsals. Our first task was to learn how to smash a bottle
without cutting our hands. There’s nothing worse than political
                    64     |    the short version

klutzes who can’t get the champagne bottle to smash against the
about-to-be-launched ship or who end up a bloody mess themselves.
Since this was to be a symbolic act for the eyes of television cameras,
and since television cameras are easily distracted, we wanted to be
sure that their eyes stayed focused on the bottle rather than any fum-
bling slapstick of ours. Soon, armed with ordinary gardening gloves
and a small hammer, we had progressed to the ranks of journeyman
bottle smashers.
  A couple of days later, accompanied by a gaggle of TV cameras and
print reporters whom Tom had alerted, the two of us appeared on the
premises of the B.C. government liquor store at the corner of 18th
and Cambie in Vancouver. Among Tom’s many virtues are his organi-
zational thoroughness and tidiness. He had already cased the store,
and we were able to go directly to the South African wines section.
Furthermore, Tom had phoned the union, informing them of our
intentions, and asking them to tell the workers in the store so that
they wouldn’t be overly alarmed by our criminal act. Finally, Tom
had brought along plastic bags, so that the broken glass and spilled
wine wouldn’t make a mess for the store’s employees.
  We each selected a bottle of South African wine, donned our gar-
dening gloves and wielded our hammer while the cameras duly
recorded our minor protest against apartheid and the policies of the
government of British Columbia. There was a bit of a hitch with the
authorities. While Tom borrowed a mop and bucket to tidy up the
floor, I had to remind the store manager that it was his job to call the
police. Then we had to stand around for a while until they showed
up. When they did, there were a half dozen of them, two constables
and four senior members. They took us into the back room of the
liquor store for questioning. At the end of the questioning, the con-
stable said, “Okay, we’ll send you a summons in the mail if we decide
to charge you.” Tom and I shared a bemused glance. As everybody
knows, the last shot in a televised story of this sort has the police car
pulling away from the curb after ushering the miscreants into the
back seat.
  I should include a political philosophy note here about civil disobe-
dience since it’s a topic not well understood by many people, even by
some civil disobedients. They often detract from the focus of their
action by whining about whatever small punishment they may
receive or protesting that they’re really innocent because of the
greater good they’re doing. In protesting against apartheid, or what-
ever other evil, by breaking the public mischief law, you’re not claim-
ing that the minor law being violated is wrong, unless you’re some
kind of anarchist. Instead, you’re saying that evil is wrong, and
you’re prepared to accept whatever punishment is necessary in order
                          Apartheid     |    65
for you to appeal to the public, a public of which you’re a normally
law-abiding member in good standing. It’s theoretically pretty simple.
Practically speaking, it’s only complicated in countries like China
where civil disobedients are still thrown in jail for ten years.
  I said, “Constable, I have to inform you that if you don’t apprehend
us, it’s our intention to return to the store and do further damage.”
The officer said, “I’ll have to consult with my superiors.” The police
huddled. Perhaps they imagined that once we got done with South
African wine, we might move on to vodka from the neighbouring
province of Alberta. In due course, if a bit grumpily — I think it was
lunch hour for them — Tom and I were packed into the police cruiser,
and driven down to the police lockup at 222 Main Street. The cam-
eramen had their concluding shot.
  Since the media is a player in this drama, something should be said
about its informational/disinformational roles in relation to political
acts. While Tom and I were awaiting our trial, one local newspaper
columnist worked himself up into an incensed state, devoting an
entire column to denouncing our “attention-seeking media stunt.”
This otherwise unremarkable and noxious bit of journalism stays in
mind because it’s both typical of the subtextual silences of much jour-
nalism and it raises questions about the ability to engage in political
action in nominal democracies where the media and most other
forums are dominated by the ideas of ruling-class corporations.
  What I mean by “subtextual silences” is this. First, there’s nothing
“natural” about any “news.” While there’s a history, and even a pro-
fessional ethos, of how journalists decide that something is newswor-
thy, there’s also a strong sense in which all of the news is a “media
stunt,” i.e., a decision by journalists to feature some aspect of every-
day life that may or may not deserve such attention. Two of the best
bad examples of this are: 1) the media’s overemphasis on sporadic
violence, giving sensationalised attention to empathy-provoking mur-
ders while in fact violent crime is statistically declining, and 2) treat-
ing practically all business decisions as implicitly rational and good.
  Second, even given the colloquial usage of “media stunt,” it’s not
clear why our citizenly action was any more of a manipulation of the
media than the ceaseless parade of political “photo-ops,” indirect
corporate advertising and governmental press conferences announc-
ing or defending some policy, such as the liquor minister’s defence of
apartheid. That is, the columnist in this case is subtextually silent
about why he’s so irked by us, a silence that makes me suspect that he
thinks the media should have the right to determine who is or isn’t a
legitimate political actor in the public forum. Apparently, not all
media stunts are created equal.
  Finally, the one other interesting thing about this newspaper col-
                    66      |    the short version

umn, as we now know from the ideas of deconstructionist reading,
centres around the trope of innocence and guilt. The columnist is
making the flimsy claim that Tom and I are “seeking attention” for
ourselves, rather than seeking to bring attention to the evil of
apartheid. The claim is flimsy because we’re not obvious crazies rant-
ing in formulaic jargon, but adults in our forties who speak in sen-
tences. At the same time, while chastising the protesters for
illegitimate attention-seeking, the column is silent, either willfully or
naively, about the columnist’s own attention-seeking self-portrait as a
tough-minded critic willing to blow the whistle on self-indulgent,
ineffective political activists. The column implicitly pretends that the
columnist isn’t a guy who has to come up with something three times
a week if he wants to continue to receive the attention of having his
name at the top of the column, not to mention his paycheque. More
important, the column is silent about the evil of apartheid, suggest-
ing, again implicitly, that it’s possible for one to be innocent, to not be
complicit, whereas the protesters are saying that everyone is impli-
cated, everyone could do what the protesters have done in order to
concretely resist that particular evil.
   I’ve gone on about this topic at some length because the widely
observed passivity of the citizenry in nominally democratic societies
usually goes unexplained by the very institutions that are partially
responsible for reinforcing that passivity. How hard it was to imagine
distant South Africa, notwithstanding its brutal televised availability,
how hard it was to conceive of oneself as having the right, if not the
responsibility, to alleviate the suffering of people living far away
whom we did not know. Perhaps one definition of politics is caring
about strangers, a uniquely human ability. I consoled myself that this
neurotic column helped, in some small way, to increase public aware-
ness of the fact of apartheid.
   While awaiting trial, the political problem of South African wine
and spirits in Canada was solved when the federal government
announced a national policy of boycotting South African products in
compliance with the United Nations’ anti-apartheid program, thus
taking the matter out of the hands of the free-market enthusiasts run-
ning the government of British Columbia.
   The judge I appeared before some weeks later, a charming eccentric
named Wally Craig — I later got to know him at the local YMCA
health club where I play squash — gave me an absolute discharge in
exchange for forbidding me from making a speech in the courtroom.
Like most other directors of courtroom theatres, he preferred to
reserve the speechifying for himself.
   These days, on television, I observe large groups of youthful
demonstrators in the streets of cities from Seattle to Genoa, protest-
                        Apartheid     |    67
ing against capitalism. Apartheid has at long last ceased to exist in
South Africa. The strangest after-effect of apartheid for me is its
amnesiac absence in the present world, especially when I happen to
mention South Africa while talking with students in college classes I
teach. I’ll casually refer to, say, Nelson Mandela, the black former
president of South Africa and, feeling a sudden gap in the psychic
space of the classroom, I’ll glance up and recognize from the looks on
the students’ faces, that although these nineteen-year-olds were alive
when black people were racially denied any political existence what-
soever during the apartheid regime, that for them what I’m talking
about is history while for me it’s memory. For me, it’s real, for them
it’s abstract, and a frisson of despair snakes down my back, as I imag-
ine a dystopia in which almost everything has been forgotten.

A   rcadia, like the Garden of Eden or El Dorado, is one of the many
images of utopia that human beings have imagined over the centuries.
The Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel gave me a copy of his
friend Tomás Eloy Martínez’s book, The Peron Novel, and inscribed
on its flyleaf, “et in Arcadia ego,” a phrase popularised in the Renais-
sance (and sometimes credited to Virgil). It means, “And (even) in
Arcadia, I am.” “I” is the figure of death, and the phrase is a stark
reminder that death is everywhere present — yes, even in the earthly
paradise of that region of the Greek Pelopponesian peninsula, Arca-
dia, where amorous shepherds engaged in pastoral dialogues.
  In summer 1992, at a gathering of writers held in the Banff Centre
for the Arts — a rather Arcadian place itself, located amid the alpine
forests of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada — I met
Martínez, whom Alberto, as the host of the occasion, had invited as a
guest. I often jokingly refer to Manguel, who is a Canadian citizen but
frequently lives elsewhere, as “Civilization’s ambassador to Canada,”
but it’s no joke. Alberto’s choice of Martínez as a visitor was perfect.
Martínez was working on a new novel, Santa Evita, a true story about
the fate of the corpse of Evita Peron, and the story he told us of writ-
ing it was more precise and intimate than any writer’s tale I’d ever
heard. When I asked Martínez to autograph my copy of his Peron
novel, he wrote, along with expressions of friendship, “Scripta
manet,” “the writing remains” — beyond our mortality. I’ve long had
the sense that writing, puny as it often seems, is our weapon against
time, yet at the same time, it always recalls us to our human fate.
  In Nicolas Poussin’s 17th century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, the
phrase is discovered on a tombstone by a group of shepherds. Arca-
dia is inextricably linked to the homoerotic desire proclaimed in the
shepherds’ love for each other, recorded in the poems of the old
bards. The linkage is found in contemporary texts, too. The first part
of Evelyn Waugh’s homoerotic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is titled
“Et in Arcadia ego.” In Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest, he describes
his boyhood love affair in the early 1940s with 17-year-old Jimmy
Trimble as one in which “there was no guilt, no sense of taboo.”
Vidal adds, with characteristic arch wit, “But then we were in Arca-
                          Arcadia     |    69
dia, not diabolic Eden.” Eden is read as a site of original sin; Arcadia
renders homosexual love almost innocent.
  Perhaps a year or so after reading Vidal’s book, in summer 1996,
Thomas Marquard (a friend of mine from Berlin) and I rode on an
afternoon bus along the twisting, mountainous road that threads
through Arcadia. Not many shepherds in sight but, as we drove along
the main streets of the villages of Arkady, old men in black clothes sit-
ting at tables in their roadside cafés, watching the infrequent passing
traffic. Former shepherds, ex-loves?
                        Art aphorisms

Normal art: I’ve lately begun to entertain the perverse idea that mak-
ing art, or meaning, or trying to understand the world, are, contrary
to popular notions, normal activities of human beings, even an evolu-
tionary feature of our survival. It is the failure to do so that should be
seen as abnormal, odd, demented, and not the other way around.

Art and politics: While there’s no requirement for art to be political,
art today ought to see itself as an active cultural politics against
“entertainment,” which is the capitalist replacement of art and cul-
ture (for example, the replacement of books by “reality” TV).

Reasons to write: The writer Brian Fawcett gave a talk on “reasons to
write,” offering such reasonable motives as money, ideology, keeping
a record, healthy curiosity, and serving the Muse. The poet Lisa
Robertson wittily added love and revenge to the list. When I men-
tioned the subject to Robin Blaser, he immediately said, “Because of
life.” That is, the condition of our existence is sufficient reason to
interrogate it.
   I’d say the same thing. What I mean by “life” is not a definition or
abstraction, but the sense conveyed by an Arthur Rimbaud poem, c.
1870, translated by Charles Olson:

 . . . (O saisons, o chateaux!

         What soul
 is without fault?

 Nobody studies

 Every time the cock crows
 I salute him

                        Art aphorisms     |   71
 I have no longer any excuse
 for envy. My life

 has been given its orders: the seasons

 the soul and the body, and make mock
 of any dispersed effort. The hour of death

 is the only trespass

Art and Auschwitz: Theodor Adorno sternly declared in the wake of
the Holocaust that lyric poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. I think
that the best way to interpret that remark is not that good poetry
can’t be written after Auschwitz, but that good writing now requires
an understanding of the Holocaust.

Charles Olson’s dictum: “Art is life’s only twin.” That’s the banner
under which we ride into the fray.

Art, Life, and Imitation: Equally, there’s John Berger’s assertion, “Art
does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose
an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to
make social the brief hope offered by nature.”
                    The Anxious Asp

M    emory, quick as a stolen kiss at midnight: for a year, age 24-25,
1965-66, in San Francisco, I worked in Arlene Arbuckle’s bars in
North Beach. There were two of them. On Grant Avenue, near Green
St., was her “respectable,” mostly-gay bar, the Capri, run by the bar-
tender-lieutenant of her little fiefdom, a prissy, lean, but hard-nosed
guy named Lee. The other establishment, a tiny beer-and-wine bar
called the Anxious Asp, was around the corner, on Green St., between
the Green Valley Restaurant and Gino and Carlo’s, Jack Spicer’s liter-
ary headquarters.
  On a crowded Saturday night in Gino’s, sitting at Jack’s table, dur-
ing a lull in the evening, or maybe just needing a breath of foggy fresh
air, somebody — George Stanley or Lew Ellingham or I — would get
up and announce, “I’m going to take a look at the Asp for a minute.”
  Inside the Asp it was even more crowded, and the jukebox, even
louder than in Gino’s, was playing the same Beatles songs, “She’s A
Woman,” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” over and over. The
atmosphere was, compared to the sedately drunken Gino’s, more
frenzied, erotic, given to abandon. Although there wasn’t any room
to dance, there was a kind of dancing in the Asp. Gino’s was the old
world: Italian leftists breaking out into an occasional chorus of “Ban-
dera Rossa”; the alcoholic longshore foreman Tom, our Roman cen-
turion, pounding his fist against an imaginary warrior’s breastplate;
poetry in the person of the hunched figure of Jack Spicer. The Asp
was the new world, the world of the Beatles, rock’n’roll, cool images
rather than feeling, as Spicer complained. It was just after the 1964
American presidential election — the first since John F. Kennedy’s
assassination — and George Stanley had compaigned for Lyndon
Johnson against the right-wing Republican candidate, Barry Goldwa-
ter. “In your heart, you know he’s right,” went Goldwater’s slogan.
“And in your guts, you know he’s nuts,” his opponents replied. It was
the beginning of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and in a sense, the begin-
ning of the Sixties.
  I’d been working in the warehouses south of Market Street. Getting
a job at the Asp, and eventually at the Capri as well, introduced me to
the lesbian subculture of North Beach. Don’t remember how I got the
                      The Anxious Asp      |    73
job, maybe through Armando, a bartender friend of George’s, who
had worked for Arlene at various times. Arlene was a slim, curly-
haired, butch woman in her late 30s, who usually had a fem girlfriend
in tow. Occasionally one or the other of them would turn up in the
morning at the Capri, sporting a black eye, as I was setting up, slicing
the limes, peeling the lemons, putting the coffee on, while the morning
drinkers sat stiffly at the bar, awaiting their first hit of coffee and
brandy. Arlene’s best friend was a tall, masculine woman named Sher-
man who ran an artist’s supply shop on Grant. Sometimes, after work,
Sherman would join Arlene and her girlfriend and a couple of the
other women in their circle for an early evening cocktail. Arlene was a
discreet presence, who seemed to leave the running of her businesses
to her lieges. Or maybe, since I was an innocent, I didn’t really notice
much of what went on. I simply reported to Lee, who laid down the
rules, which mainly had to do with not stealing and keeping a certain
decorum, a tone that Lee liked to maintain, an idea of classiness.
  If Gino’s was the Greek war camp, and the Capri was doomed Troy,
the Asp was mere “roistering in Thessaly,” as Socrates put it. The
shift ran from six in the evening to two in the morning. By midnight,
the Asp was in Bacchanalian dishevelment. A baseball bat was kept
under the bar in case of trouble. A nice neighbourhood character, a
nearly seven-foot-tall black man named Big Jim, took a liking to me,
and turned up periodically to keep an eye on the place. In return I
provided free beer. The poets trickled down from Gino’s during the
course of the evening, usually for a brief visit, but the Asp wasn’t their
kind of poetry, unless, like Lew or George, they’d gotten very drunk.
The Beatles warbled on. Sometimes the Asp was so crowded, the
party spilled out onto the sidewalk.
  One midnight, I slipped into the john for a quick pee, and found
Doc Salter there, looking into the mirror. He was an attractive young
man, the same age as me. Something clicked — what? whatever —
and we stole a kiss at midnight. “Stick around for closing?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, though he wasn’t really gay, as I learned when we
bedded down later in the Swiss-American Hotel on Broadway. He
was just high on the excitement and his own desirability. “Do what
you want,” said that San Francisco Narcissus.
  They’re all gone now, I’m pretty sure. I have a vague memory of
being told, maybe by George, of Arlene’s passing. Lee, Sherman, Big
Jim, Doc. Only the shades are dancing.

A   t the centre of modern Athens is Omonia Square, a vast inferno of
roaring, polluting traffic. At the time, in July , it was undergoing
infrastructural redevelopment, so that ragged wooden hoardings and
the pounding of pile drivers and jackhammers were added to its usual
chaos. The square is surrounded on all four sides by shops, newspa-
per and cigarette kiosks, eateries, and slowly-moving glutinous
crowds of people. But Thomas Marquard, my travelling companion,
and I, who were staying at a cheap hotel behind Omonia Square,
weren’t looking for modern Athens.
  Perhaps some other time we would seek out present-day Athenians,
look up its artists, or attempt to figure out the politics of this south-
ernmost great metropolis of Europe, a city of some three million peo-
ple. Instead, we were treating contemporary Athens, apart from
casual contacts with waiters, taxi drivers, desk clerks and the like, as
merely a translucent palimpsest through which to peer down its many
historical strata to the polis that existed around the th century BCE
  Looking south along one of the narrow, traffic-clogged commercial
streets — we were standing in front of a grocery where we’d stopped
to buy plastic bottles of water to rehydrate ourselves in the July heat
— we could see at the horizon the -metre-high gleaming Acropolis,
a big stone plateau covered with the columned facades of the ruins of
its temples. Thomas, a thorough and indefatigable traveller, saved me
from my usual lethargy upon arrival in a new city, and we set off
immediately for the winding, circular trek up to the heights.
  We paused at the Theatre of Dionysus, a stone amphitheatre carved
into the back side of the rock, resting for a moment in the seats once
occupied by theatre-going citizens who had seen the tragedies and
comedies of Euripedes and Aristophanes on opening nights in the th
century BCE. Thomas, a drama teacher and theatre director at a
Berlin high school, explained some of it to me.
  We made it to the top, dutifully touring its most famous temple, the
Parthenon, whose construction began in  BCE, when the city’s
eventual greatest philosopher, Socrates, was a young man in his early
twenties. But Socrates — who, allegedly a stonemason in his youth,
may have even worked on the project — though conventionally
                          Athens     |    75
observant, was never really interested in the Greek gods nor, I sus-
pect, the temples atop the Acropolis where they were worshipped.
From the Areopagos, a nearby hill of slithery russet-coloured marble,
it was possible to find a perch and look down over its rim to a patch
of rubble far below.
   That was our destination, the Agora or marketplace of ancient
Athens, once the centre of the known world. Here, amid its streets
and shops, baths, schools, gymnasia and public spaces, Socrates had
entered into those teasing, probing conversations in which modern
discourse has its roots. What’s striking about the dialogues preserved
(and half-invented) by Plato — I was re-reading his Symposium dur-
ing this trip — are precisely how recognizable they are to us. That is,
between the end of ancient Rome around  CE and, say, the th
century Renaissance, almost a thousand years later, there is no talk so
understandable to us, either in terms of subject matter — how to self-
consciously live a good, or at least examined, life — or method,
namely, secular arguments about definition, meaning, categories. So
much of the intervening discourse really is phantasmal chatter about
how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
   I was introduced to that talk in my mid-twenties when I studied
political philosophy with Bob Rowan at the University of British
Columbia. We read the Apology, in which Socrates, charged with
corruption of the young and worshipping false gods, pleads and loses
his case before an Athenian jury that sentences him to death. Then
the Crito, set in the Athens jail, where Socrates rejects his wealthy
friend Crito’s offer to arrange his escape. Can you imagine me, at my
age, roistering in Thessaly? Socrates asks. No thanks, he says, declin-
ing the offer of escape, in the polis we have our second birth, after
being born of our parents, and it is the City that raises and nurtures
us. Should I reject its laws now, simply because of a decision that goes
against me? And finally, the Phaedo, and the last conversation
between Socrates and his friends before he drinks the fatal hemlock,
and feels the cold chill of death move up his limbs. Now, once again,
on our travels in Greece, I was reading the Symposium, where
Socrates, Aristophanes and their friends spend the night talking
about the nature of love.
   What’s more, the appearance of such talk in Athens in  BCE is a
surprise in human history. In contradistinction, the warrior society
talk of Troy or Sparta is of a piece with the kingdoms of Mesopotamia
and Egypt or the stateless warlord regimes of contemporary Africa or
central Asia. The ritual language about the gods atop the Acropolis
has its equivalent everywhere. You can find great temples and palaces
all over the world. Nor is the marvellous Greek theatre entirely unex-
pected. Its stories of the legendary heroes, the pity and terror of
                    76     |    the short version

implacable fate, arise from the ritual search for right conduct in the
relations between humans and the gods. And while the talk of com-
merce and human desire is trans-temporal, before Athens there was
no talk like this, no semi-abstract argumentation that sought mean-
ing. This Greek discourse does not replace poetry, the basic mode of
story-telling that begins with Gilgamesh (although Plato inveighs
against poetry in his Republic), but is another way of knowing,
another attempt, as the philosopher Wilfred Sellars once put it, “to
see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang
together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”
  While I’d feel as estranged from the Jews in dusty Jerusalem at the
time of Jesus as I am from the ravings of contemporary born-again
Christians, and as distant from medieval courts as we are from the
ziggurats of our digitalized bankers, I have the sense of utterly know-
ing these Athenians, from their philosophic ponderings to their young
adults who remain erotically alive for us in the suspended desire of
their sculptures or the late-night talk of the Symposium. I’m aston-
ished that the talk of the Greeks is conversant with the latest develop-
ments in postmodern theory. Socrates would not be baffled by
Richard Rorty.
  Thomas and I ambled along the sun-baked streets of the Agora.
What remain are the stumps of the foundations of buildings. Here are
the outlines of the gym where naked youths stretched their bodies;
here at the north end of the Agora is the prison where Socrates was
executed; here’s the broad ramp leading to the procession road up to
the Acropolis. Almost impossible to imagine it, even with Thomas’s
reading of the maps, were it not for the adjacent reconstructed Stoa,
the colonnaded trading hall that now houses the Agora museum. In a
dusty glass case, we found some eggcup-sized drinking thimbles,
allegedly the kind used for administering the hemlock that Socrates
drank. Outside, in the blistering heat again, a tortoise emerged from
the rubble of the foundations, like a figure from Zeno’s paradox.
  And that is all that’s left, this patch of ground in contemporary,
debased Athens. That, and a few similar ruins scattered about the
city. Outside of Athens, once we were on the road, across the
Corinthian isthmus into the Pelopponeses, there were other old places
— Olympia, Mycenae, Arcady, seaside Navplion on the Bay of Argos.
  In each place, in the morning, before we went out to see the ancient
world, I read Plato’s Symposium. Each of us who reads has such land-
mark books, re-read again and again in the course of a lifetime. The
symposium is an evening drinking party, held at the house of the
young and handsome playwright Agathon, whose work has just been
performed and won the first prize at the theatre of Dionysus, in
whose seats Thomas and I had sat. The subject of the Symposium is
                           Athens     |    77
the nature of Eros. The dialogue contains three and a half great
speeches. The most practical talk is that of Pausanias who, in specific
detail, explains the rules and motives for courting boys, and how
those of Athens differ from Sparta, other Greek cities, and the Persian
kingdom, where men are not as devoted to conversation as in Athens.
  The greatest speech, aesthetically, is that of the comic playwright
Aristophanes, who declares that love is “the desire and pursuit of the
whole,” and tells the story of how the gods divided us into two parts
so that we go through life seeking our other half, and warns that if we
continue in our errant ways, the gods will split us again, cutting us
into quarters the way a hair is used to slice a hard-boiled egg.
Socrates’s speech is metaphysical, and attempts to link the desire for a
particular beautiful boy with larger and larger forms of love, up a lad-
der of desire, until we contemplate the nature of the beautiful itself.
  The half-great speech is provided by Alcibiades, a drunken young
warrior and politician in his late s, who tells the story of how, years
ago, when he was the most beautiful youth in Athens, he offered him-
self to Socrates, crawling into the philosopher’s bed and wrapping a
blanket around the two of them, but that Socrates rejected this offer
of beauty, not satisfied that Alcibiades was interested in the pursuit of
truth, which would be one of the appropriate motives for entering
into a relationship with someone. The chaste night they spent
together is the source of the mistaken notion of “platonic love.” But
reading the banter between Alcibiades and Socrates once more, at the
seaside port of Navplion, it was clear to me that of course they had
had sex together, on other occasions, many times, though in the end,
Alcibiades proved a moral disappointment to his would-be teacher.
  Of all the places we saw, the most beautiful was Delphi. It’s a tem-
ple north of the Pelopponesian peninsula, up in the mountains. The
Athenians came there by boat to question the Delphic oracle. We
spent half a day wandering through its ruins, looking out from the
mountain on whose slope it is set, down the throat of a long valley to
the small port, Itea, on an inlet of the Ionion waters, where the Athe-
nians landed. That evening we ate dinner at a terrace restaurant,
which had a similar view of the valley. The night sky was a pure black
that neither Thomas nor I, we both noted with some amazement, had
ever seen before. The black heavens were marked by a constellation
of stars just at the horizon — Scorpio, Thomas told me. As we left the
restaurant terrace, we gazed down the valley under its black sky a last
time. For an instant, it seemed all of a piece: magical Delphi, where
the Athenians learned from the Delphic oracle that no one among
them was wiser than Socrates, who alone knew how little he knew.

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